We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Monday, April 7, 2014


Reg E. Cathey (photo by Stephen de las Heras)
Here in 21st c. America we do not think very often about slavery and rarely talk about it.  But if you attended Salon/ Sanctuary Concerts on Saturday you would probably still be thinking about it.  We surely are!  The title of the compelling event was "Exodus-- Dreams of the Promised Land in Antebellum America".  It was reprised from last year and presented in the historical Fraunces Tavern, a building dating back to the American Revolution, the oldest surviving building in New York.

Jessica Gould, Founder and Artistic Director, conceived the program and her sister Erica Gould constructed the script  from several sources--curated  writings of former slaves who were interviewed during the Great Depression for the Federal Writer's Project of the WPA; the writings and speeches of abolitionists; and wisely interpolated passages from the Haggadah which is a Jewish text read during Passover telling of the liberation of the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt.

The texts were read by the impressively thunder-voiced actor Reg E. Cathey,  Rosalyn Coleman Williams and Jennifer Rau.  So many sad stories were read that it was difficult to stay dry-eyed.  Several thoughts stick in our mind--that Lincoln was compared to Moses since neither of them lived to see the fruits of their efforts; that there was a slave pen in the shadows of our nation's Capitol as described by Solomon Northrup, a free man who was kidnapped, drugged and sold into slavery right there in D.C.  Significantly, his book Twelve Years a Slave was recently dramatized on film.

It further sticks in our mind that women, at that time, were not permitted to vote and could only petition the government or try (gently) to persuade their husbands.  Listening to accounts of enslaved children being beaten was particularly painful.  We were thinking of the Law of Unintended Consequences and how many of our social problems today are the rotten fruits of slavery from a century and a half earlier, with disruption of families being a most direct one.

This feast for the intellect also included a generous helping of music from the period between 1780 and and the mid 19th c. performed a cappella by The Western Wind.  Until 1810, there was a singing school movement in New England which was established to improve the quality of congregational singing.  People got together as they do today in community choruses; these were social events at which men and women could mingle freely without chaperones. We got to hear a number of songs composed for these schools.

We especially enjoyed the humorous song "Complainer" sung by a trio of male singers who harmonized so beautifully--tenors Todd Frizzell and David Vanderwal and baritone Elliot Z. Levine.  The Western Wind also includes two sopranos--Linda Lee Jones and Michele Kennedy and counter-tenor William Zukof who also contributed some excellent program notes about the music.

After 1810 this movement spread to the frontiers. Another song that delighted us from that period was "The Marching Song of the First Arkansas" with clever lyrics set to the tune of "Glory Glory Hallelujah".  This song paid tribute to the African-American soldiers who fought for the Union and saved Washington.  Now how many people know that!

We noted that the first piece of music published in North America by a woman was "The Promised Land" by Matilda T. Durham in a widely circulated songbook  The Southern Harmony which is still in use in Kentucky! 

This song closed the program.  Our thoughts as we left this stimulating event were that this land we live in is the "promised land", not some place in the hereafter--and the sacrifices of our forebears have made it so.  But we also acknowledge that slavery exists in other lands and hope that members of the audience will be moved to support efforts to bring that sad feature of the human condition to a speedy end.  Three cheers for freedom!

© meche kroop

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