Monday, April 15, 2013

Review: Emancipation tribute

Richmond Symphony
chorus, soloists & dancers
April 13, Richmond CenterStage

Willis L. Barnett, the Virginia Union University music professor and choral director, has composed a number of works on African-American themes for the Richmond Symphony and other ensembles. None of those, I’ll bet, was as challenging as Barnett’s “Emancipation Overture,” written for this past weekend’s commemorative program marking the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.

The proclamation, issued on Jan. 1, 1863 by President Abraham Lincoln, is the work of Lincoln the lawyer, not Lincoln the orator. The proclamation’s wording is dry and legalistic; even its most ringing declaration, that the formerly enslaved “shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free,” is surrounded by cumbersome language. Much of the document is devoted to the legal rationale for its issuance, and to listing the states and localities “this day in rebellion against the United States” in which the proclamation applies. (Emancipation of all the slaves had to wait until ratification of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, adopted on Dec. 6, 1865.)

Barnett sets the proclamation’s lengthy text for narrator, sometimes joined by speaking choristers, within a moodily expressive tone poem whose tone is set early on by two soloists singing in the style of a wistfully mournful spiritual.

The solo voices, soprano Lisa Edwards-Burrs and alto Charmaine Sims McGilvary, sang with solemn lyricism. The narrator, Moses Braxton Jr., made the proclamation sound like a judgment from on high, about the best a speaker could do with such a non-oratorical text.

Braxton also narrated Aaron Copland’s “A Lincoln Portrait,” a much more triumphal musical setting of some of the great oratory of the Civil War president. The standards for “Lincoln Portrait” narration, to my ears, were set by Henry Fonda, who spoke conversationally, and James  Earl Jones, who made the text sound like Scripture. Braxton, a Richmond-bred singer and actor, spoke with Jones-like bassy sonority but with a bit more edge to enhance projection.

These musical narrations were the climax of a program that ranged across African-American musical tradition, showcasing several generations of leading black composers – William Grant Still, in two movements of his “Afro-American” Symphony (No. 1); Duke Ellington, in the Martin Luther King Jr. portrait from his “Three Black Kings” Suite; Adolphus Hailstork, the contemporary Virginia composer, in an instrumental setting of three spirituals; Nkeiru Okoye, a New York-based composer, in two excerpts from her folk opera “Harriet Tubman: When I Crossed That Line to Freedom” (sung with great character by Edwards-Burrs) – alongside renditions of freedom songs and anthems.

Those songs – “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “Battle Cry of Freedom,” “Amazing Grace,” “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” (long known as the “Negro national anthem”) – featured a combined chorus of students from 22 Virginia colleges and members of the Richmond Symphony Chorus and Richmond’s One Voice chorus, sounding considerably more polished than most such one-off event gatherings.

The symphony’s music director, Steven Smith, also obtained more refined performances from the orchestra than might have been expected from an ensemble in the midst of a statewide round of performances with Virginia Opera in Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro.”

The Elegba Folklore Society, a Richmond-based African dance ensemble, gave a brief sampler of West African ceremonial dances bracketing a wrenching narrative of the breakup of a family at a slave auction.

The program, a co-production of the symphony and the Virginia General Assembly’s Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Commission, launched a series of events on the sesquicentennial of the Emancipation Proclamation, which will continue through the year.

A taped production of the event will be aired by WCVE-TV and its radio affiliates at 9 p.m. April 25.