Black Lives Matter was front and center at Harlem’s Apollo Theater on Saturday night in a multi-genre program called “The Gathering: A Collective Sonic Ring Shout.” Every note played by the American Composers Orchestra and associated artists was imbued with the African-American experience, from deepest grief to incandescent joy.
Saturday’s one-night-only concert was the product of three years of pandemic-era brainstorming over the question: how the New York premiere of a little-known masterpiece about the black death , Joel Thompson’s Seven Last Words of the Disarmed for choir and orchestra, seeding a program that ultimately celebrated black life?
The spiritual analogy was with the Ring Cry, an ecstatic, dancing ceremony that raised generations of slaves and their African ancestors before them. (There was no dancing in the aisles at the Apollo on Saturday night, but rhythmic applause and cheers were definitely heard.) In the end, six more works by black composers, ranging from solo unaccompanied vocals to the orchestral centerpiece and gospel fervor to cutting-edge sound design, shared the bill with Thompson’s dark cantata.
Credit for the “creative concept and direction” went to Jonathan McCrory, Executive Artistic Director of the National Black Theatre, co-curator of the event with the Apollo and the ACO. Gateways Music Festival and Harlem Chamber Players were also listed in the gathering of black arts organizations that put on this unique event.
Somehow, the organizers managed to limit the welcome speakers to three: Apollo Executive Producer Kamilah Forbes, COA President and CEO Melissa Ngan, and CEO of NBT, Sadé Lythcott. Their brief remarks invited racially diverse audiences to do their part in the traditional call and response of black performance and worship.
Then the lights went out and Katherine Freer’s astronomical video projections lifted the listener’s thoughts upwards. The larger-than-life image of poet Mahogany L. Browne appeared among the stars and nebulae as a benign goddess, exalting the cry of the ring in a poem. She returned before each track with another evocation of the black experience that provided a poetic framework for the music.
The latter finally began as singer-songwriter Abby Dobson stood alone in front of a microphone, delivering an unaccompanied tone sermon, Say his name. Evoking the memory of lives lost in encounters with police officers, Dobson’s gospel adagio also evoked thoughts of Mahalia Jackson, beginning in prayer, slyly quoting the anthem “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” and s rising to a melismatic moan accompanied by applause and shouting. of “Oh, yes!” public.
After this powerful prelude, conductor Chelsea Tipton II led the ACO and members of the Abyssinian Baptist Church Choir, Broadway Inspirational Voices, Convent Avenue Baptist Church Choir and Sing Harlem Choir in Thompson’s cantata , a work that even its composer thought would never be accepted by the public. . And indeed, more because of the subject matter than the music itself, protests and walkouts greeted Thompson’s 2015 staging of lyrics by black people about to die at the hands of police when she was performed at the University of Michigan and later by the Minnesota Orchestra. .
By contrast, Saturday audiences sadly embraced the piece and its short, eloquent seven movements. Predictably, the score contained moments of turmoil and anger, but there were also notes of reflection, empathy, and even hope for a better place. Thompson and conductor Tipton deployed the orchestra in a colorful and sensitive way. The choir, clad in white and arranged in the audience boxes on either side of the stage in the ornate theater, produced heavenly antiphonal and contrapuntal effects, thanks to the preparation of choirmaster Gregory Hopkins.
However, the work ends with a long decrescendo, artfully but explicitly evoking the suffocation death of Eric Garner on Staten Island in 2014, a stark reminder of what really happened to the characters in the work. As a counterweight to this moment of horror, a vocal septet backed by two electric guitars, drums, the keyboard composer and the ACO performed the world premiere of Jason Michael Webb I am loved (and other healing affirmations).
The drums deposited a syncopated groove while the singers, together or solo, intoned the affirmative phrases, revival style: “I am loved… I am all I need… It’s in me… I will change the world… The audience, encouraged to sing along and applaud, seemed mostly content to sit and drink in the show.
After intermission and the presentation of plaques to the concert producers by Mr. Griffin Lotson of the Gullah Geechee Heritage Commission, honoring the adoption of the ring shout as a concert concept, the music resumed with Courtney Bryan’s Sanctuary for orchestra and recorded sounds, commissioned and premiered by the ACO in 2015. Sounds of nature, labored breathing and an angry crowd weaved through the dense texture of the work, the orchestra responding with bursts of of brass, blues-tinged phrases and page-after-age arm-breaking string tremolos – an impressive display of orchestral skill and stamina.
by Toshi Reagon My name a reflection of home featured the composer and Josette Newsam in an exuberant vocal duo backed by guitars, drums and the ACO. Juliette Jones’ understated orchestral arrangement makes its world premiere. Dancer Maleek Washington, in a T-shirt, jeans and sneakers, amusingly played ‘man in the street’, strolling or hopping across the stage, interpreting the music’s spooky or inspiring moments in eloquent gestures and muscular.
The New York premiere of Carlos Simon Amen!arranged for orchestra by the composer from his original orchestral version, still sounded very brassy as conductor Tipton conducted a relentless but disciplined interpretation, with a wild coda that, in Beethoven fashion, repeatedly refused times to end.
To close, the program returned to ring-shout business with singer-songwriter Nona Hendryx aiming to, in her own words, “cast a spiritual spell” with incantations in Heaven, grace, we rise, accompanied by keyboardist Etienne Stadwijk and the ACO and choir (in another world premiere arrangement). Hendryx’s voice was a gospel trumpet as she sang ‘Grace, grace will save your soul’ and ‘We rise higher and higher’. Despite his exhortations, the audience mostly observed the decorum of the concert, but all rose during the last bars and clapped vigorously at the end.