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Nathaniel Dett: The Ordering of Moses

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Author Topic: Nathaniel Dett: The Ordering of Moses  (Read 109 times)
Patrick Murtha
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« on: May 12, 2014, 10:16:45 pm »

The oratorio The Ordering of Moses by the African-American composer Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943) was performed as part of this year's Spring for Music Festival in New York (the last time this festival, discontinued for lack of funds, will be put on). The concert is archived at WQXR:!/story/cincinnati-symphony-plays-john-adams-and-dett-oratorio/

Anthony Tommasini wrote in the Times:

...the loss of this festival stings.

On Friday it presented the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and May Festival Chorus, conducted by James Conlon, the dynamic music director of this renowned choral festival, which began in 1873. After an exhilarating account of John Adams’s 1980 choral symphony “Harmonium,” Mr. Conlon conducted a rare performance of “The Ordering of Moses,” an affecting 45-minute oratorio by the black American composer R. Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943), first performed at the May Festival in 1937.

Dett was an extensively trained composer whose distinguished career, not surprisingly given the times he lived in, was mostly confined to teaching and directing choirs at African-American colleges. The premiere of his oratorio, which Dett described as a “biblical folk scene,” was a major breakthrough for a black composer. It was broadcast live on national radio, though the broadcast was cut short about two-thirds through the piece, officially because of “previous commitments,” as the radio announcer explained that night. Though there is no conclusive record of what happened, it has long been suspected, as Mr. Conlon said in an interview with Elliott Forrest of WQXR radio onstage before the performance, that irate listeners had called in to protest that the music of a black composer was receiving such a prominent airing.

Setting a text that the composer fashioned from scripture and folklore, the oratorio tells of the biblical Exodus, focusing on the divine “ordering” of Moses to take his people to the Promised Land. Trying something difficult, Dett blended spirituals, elements of folk music, late Romantic richness and stretches of operatically charged writing for four vocal soloists. The achievement of this score is that Dett folded these disparate styles into music that speaks in his distinctive, personal voice. The May Festival Chorus (Robert Porco, director) and the Cincinnati Orchestra under Mr. Conlon gave an inspired performance, featuring four superb vocal soloists: the soprano Latonia Moore, the mezzo-soprano Ronnita Nicole Miller, the tenor Rodrick Dixon and the baritone Donnie Ray Albert. That these fine singers are black artists lent additional poignancy to the occasion.
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« Reply #1 on: May 13, 2014, 01:56:52 am »

I had a friend in college who did some thesis work on this piece.  I'll have to let him know that it was just performed up in New York.  I know it was done here in DC a few years ago, and there was supposed to be a recording, but it appears never to have gotten off the ground, unfortunately.
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