Oberlin Orchestra and Choirs to Preview Upcoming Carnegie Hall Performance at Finney Chapel

October 13 program features an oratorio by 1908 Oberlin alumnus R. Nathaniel Dett.

October 6, 2022

Communications Staff

portrait of R. Nathaniel Dett
R. Nathaniel Dett (1908), Oberlin Conservatory's first Black double major graduate and Honorary Doctorate recipient (1926).
Photo credit: Library of Congress

Oberlin musicians are preparing for a January trip to New York for an engagement at Carnegie Hall—Oberlin's third Winter Term tour to the iconic venue this decade. But the excitement begins at home, with a preview performance of the program in Oberlin's own Finney Chapel, in person and streamed live at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, October 13.

The program includes music by Oberlin composition alumnus R. Nathaniel Dett and showcases the artistry of faculty, guest, and alumni soloists. Both concerts will feature the Oberlin Orchestra, joined by voices from the Oberlin College Choir, Oberlin Gospel Choir, and Musical Union.

"If there is a title for the program, it should be ‘Freedom,’" says conductor Raphael Jiménez. "Two of the pieces on the program are inspired by our eternal fight for justice and freedom: A Metaphor for Power by Iván Enrique Rodríguez (an ASCAP award-winning composer from Puerto Rico) and Nathaniel Dett’s The Ordering of Moses." The Oberlin Orchestra will also perform Johannes Brahms’ Tragic Overture.

R. Nathaniel Dett, the first Black double-major and Phi Beta Kappa honoree of Oberlin Conservatory, graduated from Oberlin in 1908 and was also awarded an Honorary Doctorate in 1926. Jiménez shares, "For the Oberlin ensembles, bringing life to The Ordering of Moses has a special significance. Dett wrote a lot of piano and choral pieces, but unfortunately, he didn’t write much for orchestra. So, I am very grateful for the fact that this piece—written for chorus, a full orchestra, and four soloists—gives a large part of our community the opportunity to perform his music."

The soloists for the October performance here in Oberlin are faculty soprano Mathilda Edge, guest mezzo-soprano Krysty Swann, alumnus tenor Limmie Pulliam '98, and faculty baritone Timothy LeFebvre

Oberlin musicology professor Courtney-Savali Andrews adds some historical context: “Upon graduating from Oberlin, Dett became an early champion for the preservation and re-articulation of the folk idioms of his ancestors. He concentrated particularly on interpreting the melodies and harmonies of the Negro Spirituals and the rhythms of purge music and recreational dances carried out between the plantation and the town square. These Negro folk idioms would serve as source material for many of his piano and choral compositions, notably his large-scale works Listen to the Lambs, The Chariot Jubilee, and The Ordering of Moses.”

Jiménez conducts the orchestra and choir
The orchestra and choirs prepare for their concert at Finney Chapel. Credit: Ben Johns

Dett’s oratorio carries an important political message: it tells the story of Moses, one of the most important prophets of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, while also serving as a metaphor for the emancipation of enslaved people in the United States. According to Jiménez, "The piece is cinematic and full of drama. It is cleverly written and full of orchestral and choral effects: at one point, the entire chorus sings ‘Go Down Moses’ with great contrapuntal treatment, and then there is the beautiful march of the Israelites as they cross the Red Sea, full of hope, en route to the promised land."

Andrews highlights how the fugal treatment of “Go Down Moses” emphasizes the shifting identities present in Dett’s piece: “When considering how enslaved Africans employed coded messaging and double meaning in their expressive cultures as a survival mechanism, this doubling moves between past, present and future using symbolic language and 'call-and-response.'”

This will be the first time that Oberlin's ensembles have performed Dett's oratorio. Choral conductor Ben Johns concludes, “I'm elated about the music we are making together. I'm excited to give more voice to this underperformed work and composer. And I'm grateful that we get to tour such a large ensemble to Carnegie Hall. The Ordering of Moses is inspiring, imaginative, and joyful. At every step in the process, I have found delight.”



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