In January, some 250 Oberlin musicians will mark a singular moment in their young careers with a performance at New York’s fabled Carnegie Hall.
And this time it’s doubly singular.
The Oberlin Orchestra, joined by three conservatory choral ensembles and four professional vocal soloists—among them two Oberlin alumni—will present a program featuring the masterwork of one of Oberlin’s own: The Ordering of Moses, the 1932 oratorio by celebrated composer R. Nathaniel Dett, who in 1908 became the first Black double-major graduate of Oberlin Conservatory and who went on to forge an exceptionally distinguished career as a composer, performer, educator, and choir director at Hampton University and other institutions.
The concert takes place at 8 p.m., Friday, January 20, in Carnegie’s Stern Auditorium. It will be preceded on the evening of January 19 by a panel discussion on the life and legacy of Dett at Kaufman Music Center’s Merkin Hall.
Oberlin’s 2023 runout to the Big Apple also includes two sets by the Oberlin Sonny Rollins Jazz Ensemble, an eight-piece combo of standout conservatory musicians, at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, the intimate venue that is part of the Jazz at Lincoln Center complex. Showtimes are 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. Thursday, January 19.
“Opportunities for performance and performative expression are central to the professional training of all musicians, and we are very proud to offer our students this opportunity to share their artistry in two of the world’s most celebrated venues for their craft,” says William Quillen, dean of Oberlin Conservatory. “Central to this remarkable experience is the opportunity we have to celebrate one of Oberlin’s own: R. Nathaniel Dett, a visionary musician and educator and one of Oberlin Consevatory’s most distinguished alumni.”
“From Darkness to Light”
Any date with Carnegie Hall may be aptly considered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Oberlin’s upcoming performance marks the second time in as many months that its conservatory ensembles will have graced the historic venue’s Perelman Stage: The Oberlin Orchestra and choral ensembles performed before the 77th General Assembly of the United Nations at a Carnegie Hall gala on December 2. That engagement served as the symbolic kickoff of a new partnership between Oberlin and the United Nations aimed at improving access to education and musical training for students all over the world.
The January 20 program begins with Johannes Brahms’ Tragic Overture, Op. 81 (1880), which opens with the striking of two blunt chords that, in the words of conductor Raphael Jiménez, send the audience on a “turbulent and sometimes gloomy ride with few glimmers of optimism.”
It is followed by Iván Enrique Rodríguez’s 2018 musical essay A Metaphor for Power, which examines the assertion that “all men are created equal” through what the ASCAP Award-winning composer calls “an expanse of troublesome experiences visited by fleeting and unsuccessful moments of hope,” an analog of the experiences faced by many in America, including those who share the Puerto Rican composer’s Latino heritage.
The evening concludes with Dett’s oratorio, initially composed while he was a graduate student in 1932 and expanded in 1937. It conveys the biblical story of Exodus and the journey from persecution to freedom, the composer deftly blending elements of his classical training with influences from Black folk songs and spirituals—a practice he learned as an undergraduate at Oberlin and implemented throughout his career.
The massive work summons the talents of the 96-piece Oberlin Orchestra and 147 vocalists, including the Oberlin College Choir, Oberlin Gospel Choir, and Musical Union—the Oberlin campus-community chorus that is one of the oldest U.S. ensembles of its kind. It features four soloists: Oberlin alumni soprano Chabrelle Williams ’11 and tenor Limmie Pulliam ’98, as well as mezzo-soprano Ronnita Miller and baritone Eric Greene.
“This repertoire gives us the opportunity to demonstrate our commitment to high-level musical training, our commitment to new music, and our commitment to expanding the classical music canon, all wrapped around a theme of social justice—a theme that is central to the values of our institution,” says conductor Jiménez. “What is indeed a diverse and seemingly eclectic program has been curated with a sense of drama in mind—a drama that we all love to revive over and over: the journey from darkness to light.”
The concert takes place at 8 p.m. Friday, January 20. Tickets ($15-$35) are available at carnegiehall.org or by calling 212-247-7800. Carnegie Hall is at 881 7th Avenue in New York.
The January 19 panel discussion, “Explorations of Political, Religious, and Cultural Context in R. Nathaniel Dett's The Ordering of Moses,” will examine Dett’s pioneering use of spirituals and folk songs as a basis for Western classical compositions—a practice he developed as a student at Oberlin. It will be moderated by Courtney-Savali Andrews, Oberlin’s assistant professor of African American and African diasporic musics, and will feature a panel of distinguished guests: ethnomusicology professor Fredara Hadley of the Juilliard School, retired music theory professor Jeannie Ma. Guerrero of the Eastman School of Music, emerita professor of religion and women’s studies Cheryl Kirk-Duggan of Shaw University, choral professor Marques L.A. Garrett of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, professor Damien Sneed of the Manhattan School of Music, and Roland Carter, emeritus music professor Roland Carter of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and former music chair and choir director at Hampton University.
In recent years, works by Dett—longtime staples of music programs at historically Black colleges and universities—have begun to appear more frequently on programs across America and in Europe. The Ordering of Moses made its Carnegie Hall debut in 2014; its U.K. premiere was presented by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in February 2022.
“It is fantastic to see a watershed moment in the programming of Dett’s repertoire across the nation and overseas,” Andrews says. “Eighty years after his death, it seems as if he is in the press now almost as much as he was when he was touring solo and with his ensembles throughout his 45-year career between Canada, America, and Europe. Audiences today would serve his legacy well to take a closer look at the layered aspirations of this great American composer, thought leader, and culture bearer.”
The discussion takes place from 5:30 to 7 p.m. at Kaufman Music Center. Admission is free, but reservations are required by calling 212-501-3330. Kaufman Music Center is at 129 West 67th Street in New York.
Jazz at Dizzy’s
Thursday evening continues with two performances by the Oberlin Sonny Rollins Jazz Ensemble at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola at Lincoln Center, a short walk down Broadway from Kaufman Music Center. Established at Oberlin through the support of the legendary saxophonist, the “Sonny Ensemble” made its New York City debut at Dizzy’s in January 2019. The return trip promises more original works, arrangements, and compositions by Rollins himself.
Showtimes are 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. Tickets are $35 to $45 ($20 for students), in addition to a $21 food and beverage minimum per person. Call 212-258-9800 or visit www.jazz.org for information and reservations. Dizzy’s is at 10 Columbus Circle in New York.
Members of the Sonny Ensemble will arrive in New York early to begin a series of performance-visits with area schoolchildren and music programs in New York and New Jersey.
Northeast Ohio audiences will have opportunities to experience preview performances happening on campus prior to their departure for New York.
The Sonny Ensemble will appear at the ’Sco—the student-run concert club on the lower level of Wilder Hall—at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, January 15.
The complete Carnegie Hall program, featuring all four vocal soloists slated to appear in New York, happens at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, January 17, in Finney Chapel.
Ticket info and more at www.oberlin.edu/NYC2023.
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