ROBERT NATHANIEL DETT (1882 – 1943): The Ordering of Moses—Latonia Moore (Miriam), Ronnita Nicole Miller (The Voice of Israel), Rodrick Dixon (Moses), Donnie Ray Albert (The Voice of God, The Word); May Festival Chorus; Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra; James Conlon, conductor [Recorded ‘live’ in concert in Stern Auditorium/Perelman Stage, Carnegie Hall, New York City, USA, during the Spring for Music Festival on 9 May 2014; Bridge Records BRIDGE 9462; 1 CD, 48:32; Available from Bridge Records, Amazon (USA), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]
Judged before ever producing a single note based upon age, appearance, ethnicity, faith, sexual preference, weight, and countless other spoken and unspoken prejudicial criteria, the discrimination that today’s musicians are charged with overcoming is perhaps less in frequency of occurrence than that endured by previous generations of artists but is surely not reduced in ferocity. It is said that music is the universal language, but far too many people in far too many communities throughout the world are denied the wonders of exposure to and tutelage in the dialects of Classical Music because of factors having nothing to do with their capacities for absorbing, enjoying, and practicing musical conversations. Even now, when new and rejuvenated media platforms facilitate the dispersion of cultural endeavors on a global scale, opportunities are not so bountiful as to ensure dependable, satisfying work for every aspiring artist, but neither are significant musicians so prevalent as to warrant thinning their ranks by excluding individuals because of who they are (or are not) rather than what they can (or cannot) do. That in 2016, when composers from every recess of merited and unmerited obscurity have joined the ranks of Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms in the playbills of the world’s concert halls, the Canadian-born Robert Nathaniel Dett remains a little-known presence among the respected composers of the first half of the Twentieth Century is a travesty for which there is no polite explanation. Recorded in performance at Carnegie Hall during the Spring for Music Festival on 9 May 2014, and preserved in sound of great immediacy and depth—nothing less than the music deserves—by WQXR and Bridge Records, Dett’s The Ordering of Moses compellingly inventories this neglected master’s prodigious gifts. What some listeners might be inclined to dismiss as a curiosity is here performed with the ardor devoted to traversals of acknowledged masterpieces. Hearing is believing, conventional wisdom would have it, and to hear this performance of The Ordering of Moses is to believe that talent can and must always prevail over prejudice.
Dett’s musical language in his 1932 oratorio The Ordering of Moses is a complex synthesis of original idioms and accents borrowed from composers ranging from Schumann and Brahms to Bruckner and Nadia Boulanger, with whom Dett studied in Paris. For the work of a composer born in Canada and resident throughout much of his career in the United States, where his professional attachments included a stint as Music Director at Bennett College in Greensboro, North Carolina, The Ordering of Moses is surprisingly untouched by the broad grasp of the English choral tradition: there are occasional hints of the Elgar of Caractacus, but Dett’s voice is prevailingly cosmopolitan and Continental, more influenced by Dvořák and Debussy than by music of the Commonwealth. It was by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra that The Ordering of Moses was premièred at the 1937 May Festival, during which NBC’s broadcast of the first performance was famously interrupted without comment, perhaps in reaction to objections to nationwide broadcast of music by a prominent Black composer. [In the Carnegie Hall performance and WQXR broadcast that yielded this recording, archival broadcast tapes from 1937 were employed to recreate the atmosphere of the first performance, including NBC’s introduction of the work as the product of a ‘Negro’ composer and the abrupt termination of the broadcast. Dedicated to communicating the cumulative impact of Dett’s score, the CD release does not include these supplements.] Nearly eight decades after the oratorio’s first performance, the current generation of Cincinnati Symphony musicians play the score with great skill, the music’s passages of Mahlerian gravitas executed with vigor that does not overwhelm the moments of more inward contemplation. All sections of the orchestra are manned with capable technicians whose work discloses not only a high level of musicality but also the rare art of truly listening to one another. Whether Sir Eugene Goossens, who conducted that auspicious first performance of The Ordering of Moses, wielded as complete an understanding of Dett’s music as American conductor James Conlon exhibits in this performance can be debated, but the strength that the score gains from Conlon’s leadership is undeniable. Long a champion of undervalued American composers and their music, Conlon makes no attempts to apologize for or gloss over the minimal defects of Dett’s music, foremost among which is an over-reliance on dynamic extremes to impart dramatic magnitude. Conlon’s tempi consistently enable the performers to dispatch their parts with accuracy and enthusiasm. Many conductors could learn from Conlon’s approach: permitted to make its points on its own terms, Dett’s music reveals its glories with verve that confirms not only its stageworthiness but the senselessness of the neglect to which its composer has been subjected in the seventy-three years since his premature death.
Prepared by Robert Porco, the 150 ladies and gentlemen of the May Festival Chorus sing Dett’s music with zeal that matches the momentousness of the words and the power of the composer’s responses to them. From the first bars of ‘By reason of their bondage,’ the choir’s animated singing keenly exudes both the singers’ commitment to the score and their attention to every nuance of the composer’s part writing. The piquant rhythms and cadences of jazz emerge in isolated phrases, but the presiding ethos is that of the great oratorios of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, Händel’s Judas Maccabaeus, Haydn’s Die Schöpfung, Mendelssohn’s Elijah, and Liszt’s Christus. The choristers’ animated performance lends ‘And from a burning bush, flaming, God spake unto Moses’ and ‘Go down, Moses, way down in Egypt’s land’ the momentum that the story needs. The unaffected sincerity with which ‘Hallelujah, hallelujah, let us praise Jehovah,’ ‘Thy right hand, O Lord, is become glorious in power,’ and ‘He is King of kings; He is Lord of lords’ are sung transforms the chorus from a body of observers into a true community participating in the oratorio’s action. As recorded, there are slight deficiencies in the balances among voices that affect the choral singing at top volume, but the raw aural and emotional impact of 150 voices resonantly uplifted in song is phenomenally thrilling.
Too numerous to count are the works and performances of them that the participation of a quartet of soloists of the quality of the four singers assembled for this performance of The Ordering of Moses would lift from the mundane to the magnificent. Many a Beethoven Ninth and Mahler Eighth could be rescued from banality by singing such as mezzo-soprano Ronnita Nicole Miller accomplishes in her embodiment of The Voice of Israel. Commendably even-toned throughout the range required by her music, Miller’s voice is lushly beautiful, her singing of ‘O Lord, behold my affliction’ a stretch of firm, focused vocalism in the tradition of Marian Anderson and Carol Brice. It is the haunting voice of Brazilian contralto Maura Moreira that Miller’s singing in this performance most readily brings to mind, however. Already heard in numerous leading rôles in European opera houses and as a granite-voiced Norn in Wagner’s Götterdämmerung at the Metropolitan Opera, Miller is a singer of tremendous potential whose superlative singing in The Ordering of Moses is but the proverbial tip of her artistic iceberg.
Endowed with a voice of imposing, Wagnerian grandeur, baritone Donnie Ray Albert is an ideal choice for delivering the consequential utterances of The Word and The Voice of God. Declaiming God’s ‘Who hath made a man dumb, or who hath made his mouth speak?’ with the force of breakers crashing upon the shore, Albert is an apt musical conduit for Providence, his timbre conveying an irrefutable authority that both awes and soothes. He articulates The Word’s ‘And when Moses smote the water’ and ‘Then did the women of Israel gather with timbrels and dances’ with wonderful diction, his elocution giving each syllable of the text an indelible purpose within the narrative. Among the soloists, Albert suffers most from the composer’s use of volume as a storytelling device, the voice occasionally forced uncomfortably in pursuit of the grandiloquence sought by Dett. Albert is a shrewd singer, though, and his sonorous vocalism provides this performance of The Ordering of Moses with a foundation as unshakable as Jebel Musa.
When soprano Latonia Moore débuted at the Metropolitan Opera in the title rôle of Verdi’s Aida in a 2012 Saturday matinée broadcast performance savored by opera lovers throughout the world, the emergence of a major new American voice was rightly heralded. When Moore returned to the MET stage in 2016 to continue the legacy of Leontyne Price and Martina Arroyo as Cio-Cio-San in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, the soprano revealed her vocal production and technique to be even more refined than when heard in 2012. In some ways, her portrayal of Moses’s sister Miriam in The Ordering of Moses is the best of these New York outings. Moore voices ‘Come, let us praise Jehovah’ and ‘O praise ye, Praise ye Jehovah, Praise His holy name!’ with the bel canto integration of vocal registers that distinguishes her Verdi singing. Exclaiming the ‘Song of the Sea’ (the Hebrew שירת הים), sometimes cited as one of the earliest scriptural celebrations of the Exodus, Moore sings ‘The horse and his rider He hath thrown into the sea!’ exhilaratingly, and the pious sincerity that shapes her readings of ‘And He hath become my salvation!’ and ‘My fathers’ God, and I will exalt Him’ is arresting. In the final ‘Jehovah shall reign forever and ever!’ with Moses, Moore is taxed by the range of the part, but she holds nothing back, soaring to the final high note with the power of a Brünnhilde conquering the last scene of Siegfried. An entrancingly melodic prophetess, this Miriam certainly possesses the ‘tuneful voice’ attributed to her in Thomas Morell’s libretto for Händel’s Joshua!
The rôle of Moses is heroic on the scale of Händel’s Samson and Elgar’s Gerontius and demands vocal and dramatic charisma that he receives in spades from tenor Rodrick Dixon. In a practical sense, Moses was one of humanity’s greatest salesmen, ‘pitching’ an intangible product to an oppressed people desperate for deliverance. Such an endeavor requires steely resolve and sensitivity in equal measures, and it is this balance that Dixon’s singing displays. The self-doubt that plagues Moses as he sings ‘Lord! Who am I to go unto Pharaoh’ finds an ideal outlet in the lyricism of Dixon’s singing, and the absolute confidence with which the tenor voices ‘I will praise Jehovah,’ ‘Sing ye to Jehovah,’ and ‘O praise ye, Praise Jehovah, Praise His holy name!’ credibly establishes his Moses as the iron-willed but humble instrument of the Israelites’ liberation. His accounts of the increasingly profound ‘I will sing unto Jehovah, for He hath triumphed gloriously,’ ‘Jehovah is my strength and my song,’ and ‘This is my God, and I will praise Him!’ mark him as an expressive artist of the first order. Dixon’s incandescent vocalism makes ‘Thou, Lord, in Thy loving kindness hast led the people, whom Thou hast redeemed!’ a statement of both deeply personal and universal faith. Fearlessly joining with with Moore’s Miriam, Dixon’s Moses voices ‘Jehovah shall reign forever and ever!’ with ringing fortitude, the siblings crowning the oratorio with an effusion in unison that could have been borrowed from Giordano’s Andrea Chénier and Maddalena de Coigny. Like any epic hero of the stage, Dett’s Moses needs an interpreter whose individual gifts equip him to find the vulnerability beneath the vanity that is a component of a paragon’s psyche and in Dixon has precisely that.
The institutional stupidity that barred the doors of many of America’s musical temples to generations of artists of color may now be largely eradicated, but the juggernaut of hard-earned equality still fails to progress into every niche of the Performing Arts. When compositions in Classical veins by popular white songwriters like Sir Paul McCartney and Roger Waters are encouraged, financed, performed, and praised, where are the commissions for Lieder cycles, operas, and oratorios from today’s brilliant songsmiths of color, musical poets like Andra Day, John Legend, and Janelle Monáe? When the world’s theatres reverberate with the sounds of music by white composers whose names are unfamiliar to all but the most punctilious scholars, why do the thoughtfully-crafted scores of Charles Lucien Lambert, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Rudolph Dunbar, and William Grant Still lay in silence? With this recorded performance that movingly pays homage to both its composer and its exalted subject, Robert Nathaniel Dett’s The Ordering of Moses roars out of the silence. May its voice lead other products of suppressed genius into the light.