In concert – Soloists, CBSO Chorus, CBSO / Joshua Weilerstein: Robert Nathaniel Dett – The Ordering of Moses

Ives (orch. Schuman) Variations on ‘America’ (1891/1962)
Bernstein (orch. Ramin & Kostal)
 Symphonic Dances from ‘West Side Story’ (1957/61)
Dett
The Ordering of Moses (1937) [UK premiere]

Nadine Benjamin (soprano), Chrystal E Williams (mezzo-soprano), Rodrick Dixon (tenor), Eric Greene (baritone), CBSO Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Joshua Weilerstein

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 23 February 2022

Written by Richard Whitehouse

This evening’s concert by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra was an all-American programme, centred as it was upon the first performance in this country for what is likely the most ambitious work by the African/American composer Robert Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943).

Although he gained prominence as a choral conductor (his Hampton Choir having performed for President Hoover and Britain’s Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald), Canadian-born Dett failed to make a lasting breakthrough as composer – his death when barely 61 confining him to a footnote in American cultural history. The ‘sacred cantata’ The Ordering of Moses was a statement of intent when submitted for his MMus in June 1932. Adapted from Exodus and Lamentations, its text describes the Hebrews escaping slavery in Egypt by the parting of the Red Sea over the course of 55 eventful minutes. The brooding prelude is rich in atmospheric writing for lower woodwind and brass, while the climactic sequence draws wordless chorus and orchestra into a graphic depiction of the ‘crossing’; after which, thanks is rendered unto God in suitably festive terms – Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast an audible precedent. Much has been made of the use of spirituals but, apart from the rallying presence of ‘Go down, Moses’, they serve more a textural and harmonic role in heightening the music’s expressive potency.

A potency owing in no small part to its vocal and choral forces. Eric Greene was predictably sonorous in his eloquence when setting the scene as ‘The Word’, while Chrystal E Williams made the most of her small if crucial part as ‘The Voice of Israel’. Most memorable, though, were those contributions of Rodrick Dixon as the impulsive and ardent Moses, then Nadine Benjamin whose Miriam exuded poignancy and fervour in equal measure. The CBSO Chorus represented ‘The Children of Israel’ in suitably implacable and ultimately affirmative terms.

The whole performance was ably handled by Joshua Weilerstein, who ensured certain more discursive episodes in the cantata’s earlier stages never hung fire and drew a lusty response from the CBSO. Astute programming, moreover, in preceding a still little-known work with staples from the American repertoire. It might not encapsulate the whole of the musical, but Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from ‘West Side Story’ captures its essence via orchestration (with judicious assistance from Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal) as made a suitable impact here.

Surprising that William Schuman’s bracing orchestration of the teenage Charles Ives’s bravura organ piece Variations on ‘America’ does not enjoy more regular performance this side of the pond, or perhaps the quirky and increasingly uproarious incarnations of what Weilerstein pointedly referred to as the National Anthem of Lichtenstein still rankles with home-grown listeners? Whatever the case, the conductor made a persuasive case for this engaging and effervescent music to be heard more frequently – the CBSO players remaining straight-faced throughout.

It certainly provided an irreverent curtain-raiser to an engrossing programme as may yet have blazed a trail. More little-known American music on Sunday when Weilerstein directs only a second UK outing for Florence Price’s Piano Concerto, alongside Korngold and Tchaikovsky.

For more information on the next CBSO Youth Orchestra concert, click here. For more on the composer Robert Nathaniel Dett, head to a website devoted to his work. Meanwhile click on the links for information on the artsts – Joshua Weilerstein, Nadine Benjamin, Chrystal E Williams, Roderick Dixon and Eric Greene