Classical music institutions have been seeking to make their performances more inclusive of and welcoming to non-white audiences. Choral Arts Society of Washington made a step in the right direction Monday evening by performing An African American Requiem, a new 90-minute choral work by Damien Geter, in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. The coronavirus, which had twice forced the cancellation of this concert, did not prevail the third time around.
Geter, who is also an operatic baritone and the interim music director of Portland Opera, began work on the piece in 2016. It was a response to the epidemic of police violence in the United States, which began to receive wider national attention in the wake of the murder of Eric Garner by an NYPD officer in 2014. As Geter completed the work, the killing of George Floyd in 2020 sparked even larger protests across the country.
Since the world premiere of this significant piece, on May 7 in Portland, Oregon, a self-professed white supremacist massacred ten African Americans who were shopping in a grocery store in Buffalo. Choral Arts artistic director Scott Tucker, in brief pre-performance comments, offered this performance to honor the memory of the shooting victims, as well as all those killed in racial violence by police and others.
Geter used the Latin texts of the Catholic Requiem Mass as the framework of the piece. The choral forces, combining Choral Arts singers with members of the Resonance Ensemble and NEWorks Voices of America, intoned the ancient words imploring eternal rest for the dead. Geter drew skillfully on contrapuntal traditions to interweave a chant-like tune with itself in the unaccompanied “Te decet hymnus” section. Geter’s music constitutes a patchwork of many styles, ranging from the counterpoint and traditional forms associated with classical music to the more vernacular genres of gospel and popular music.
At times the four vocal soloists echoed and commented on the chorus’s statements. In the “Lord, have mercy” section, set in an English translation with vernacular resonance, mezzo-soprano Karmesha Peake intoned an intense litany, a strong rhythmic pulse propelling the orchestra through a repeating harmonic pattern. At the podium, Tucker helped craft polished sounds from the NEWorks Philharmonic Orchestra.
Soprano Jaqueline Echols shook the piece from its moorings by calling out the words of Sacramento activist Jamilia Land, “We are living in communities that are like war zones.” This recitative sparked a clamorous transition in the orchestra, leading to the “Dies Irae” movement, a tapestry of large choral sound supported by apocalyptic brass. Another trumpet call and more heavy brass announced the “Tuba mirum,” intoned with priestly force by baritone Kenneth Overton and crowned by the roar of a siren.
The next textual interpolation featured tenor soloist Norman Shankle repeating the words “I can’t breathe,” gasped out by both Eric Garner and George Floyd as they died. The accompaniment here was all percussion, a symbolic portrayal of the lack of air, in a panicked racket. A spiritual, “There’s a man goin’ round takin’ names,” was overlaid with the next section of the Latin text, “Liber scriptus proferetur,” about the Book of Life, in which will be written the names of all the elect at the Last Judgment.
Geter made many such juxtapositions of Latin with new English texts, in the manner of Britten’s War Requiem. The Latin prayers of the dying person (“Salve me, fons pietatis”) were interspersed with the words of Antwon Rose, Jr. (“I am confused and afraid”), a 17-year-old black boy shot by a police officer in East Pittsburg. The mixture of musical styles, both liturgical and vernacular, created a complex web of overlapping ideas.
Yet despite the deeply felt inspiration, some of the symbolism felt incongruous or heavy-handed. The “Confutatis” section (“Once the cursed have been silenced, sentenced to acrid flames”) received a bouncy Latin-influenced musical setting. This was followed by a “Lacrimosa” introduced by “The Star-Spangled Banner,” mostly transformed into the minor mode. With snare drum and band instrumentation, the tune became a somber funeral march. Several times, at the part of the tune that goes with the words “O’er the land of the free,” a sudden silence replaced the note corresponding to “free.”
The prayers of the community for the dead at the lush Offertory (“Domine Jesu Christe”) were answered by the spiritual “Kum ba yah,” complete with tambourine and bouncy bass. Adding to the feel of going to church, the chorus began to clap at one point and there was even a pop-style modulation abruptly taking the tune up a half-step. The unaccompanied “Agnus Dei” felt more traditionally solemn, the anguished tune dotted with blue notes in the style of a spiritual.
The mixture of texts and styles had a devastating effect, for the first seventy minutes. At its full length, this piece is in need of some drastic pruning and revision. Everything that came after that solemn “Agnus Dei,” which would make a more convincing conclusion, lengthened the work without adding to its impact. Mezzo-soprano Karmesha Peake led a long setting of an Ida B. Wells speech, “Lynching is Color-Line Murder.” Poet S. Renee Mitchell added yet another movement, reciting her poem that began “Ancient bones beckon from their graves” over a dignified orchestral accompaniment. Ending with another spiritual, “Walk together, children,” that concluded on a major chord felt hopeful but also a little glib.
Likewise, the concert opener, two movements from the Spirituals Suite, seemed an unnecessary introduction to Geter’s substantial work. As conducted by its composer, Nolan Williams, Jr., it was more effective in the second piece, “Done Made My Vow,” with spirited solos from individual singers. The accompaniment of the first piece, “City Called Heaven,” had a Hollywood glitz, down to a tinkling bell tree, that felt misplaced.
Scott Tucker celebrates his 10th anniversary leading Choral Arts Society of Washington, with a concert devoted to the music of Brahms 7 p.m. June 16 at Washington National Cathedral. choralarts.org