Having been on pause since the pandemic, Liz Player (Founding Executive and Artistic Director, Harlem Chamber Players) is pleased to announce the rare NYC performance of Harlem Renaissance composer Nathaniel Dett’s (1882-1943) masterpiece oratorio The Ordering of Moses. During the weekend of Juneteenth, the concert will be presented June 17th for one night only at The Riverside Church (490 Riverside Drive). In 1937 The Ordering of Moses was actually cut from the airwaves during a national radio broadcast. It is now believed the network caved to racist complaints from listeners. Produced by Ms. Player and brought back to its original splendor, this epic performance includes a 60- piece orchestra from The Harlem Chamber Players, a 75-member choir composed of members from Chorale Le Chateau, and five Metropolitan Opera soloists.
The production is helmed by conductor, music director and multifaceted artist Damien Sneed and is hosted by WQXR personality Terrance McKnight. The Ordering of Moses is part of the Harlem Renaissance Centennial and is produced in association with The Manhattan School of Music and The Harlem School of the Arts. General admission tickets which have been made affordable are $25 are available online at https://harlemchamberplayers.
For its world premiere in 1937, The Ordering of Moses was broadcast nationally by NBC Radio, making it among the first classical pieces written by an African-American composer to earn that distinction. Due to “previous commitments,” the network cut the scheduled broadcast by 20 minutes, believed by most to be the result of racist complaints. It was last performed in 2014 at Carnegie Hall. Nathaniel Dett still remains as one of the most influential Black composers in history.
Featured in this once-in-a-lifetime performance of The Ordering of Moses are five Metropolitan Opera soloists who include soprano Brandie Sutton, soprano Janinah Burnett, mezzo soprano Krysty Swann, tenor Chauncy Packer and baritone Kenneth Overton. This concert is dedicated to the memory of the legendary soprano Jessye Norman.
Sweeping in its scope and soul-stirring with its unmistakable infusion of spirituals into a traditional European form, R. Nathaniel Dett’s masterwork invokes the emancipation of African-American people through a re-telling of the Old Testament story. The Ordering of Moses uses a distinct combination of scripture and folklore to recount the tale of Moses leading the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt and into liberation. With Dett’s bold use of African-American thematic elements, weaving the spiritual “e” throughout a staunchly traditional form, this soaring work echoes the plight of slaves in America—from emancipation to Jim Crow to the Harlem Renaissance, and now, the ability to celebrate the liberation of Black creative voices 100 years later.
In addition to The Ordering of Moses, also on the bill for the evening are James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing” in a world premiere arrangement by Damien Sneed, Bach’s “Herr Gott, dich loben wir” (“Lord God, Thy Praise We Sing”) and an additional surprise performance.
“After having to postpone this production for two years, I am excited to bring the Harlem Renaissance composer Nathaniel Dett’s oratorio The Ordering of Moses to our community. What I hope is that this story of Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt after a series of plagues will foreshadow our own triumphant emergence from this pandemic” says producer Liz Player “I love that the spiritual ‘Go Down, Moses’, which is also a message of Black liberation, is interwoven throughout the oratorio. This is especially timely after all we have endured during the past two years with the pandemic and the reckoning of anti-Black racism. As we approach Juneteenth, the second year of its being recognized as a national holiday, I hope this music uplifts and unites us all in celebration of Freedom Day for every single one of us.”
“Nathaniel Dett’s oratorio was composed in 1932 as monarchs and dictators were seizing power and committing genocide around the world. The piece is a meditation on the Moses in those of us who are willing to speak out against oppression wherever it is.” says concert host Terrance McKnight (WQXR Radio and Artistic Advisor to The Harlem Chamber Players).
R. Nathaniel Dett (Composer) was an instrumental figure in the preservation and study of spirituals, both as a writer and choral leader and as a great teacher and inspirer of African-American musicians in later generations. He is acknowledged to be one of the most important musicians in American history. Born in Drummondville, Ontario, Canada on October 11, 1882, his ancestors were among the slaves who escaped to the North and settled in that slave-founded town. Dett began studying piano in 1901, and was admitted just three years later to Oberlin Conservatory, where he majored in piano and composition. His later education included studies at Harvard University under Arthur Foote (1920-21) and the American Conservatory in Fontainebleau with Nadia Boulanger. In 1932, he completed a Master of Music degree at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY. In the decades between, his most important work came as the choir director at the Hampton Institute in Hampton, VA, training the 40-voice Hampton Singers at the traditionally African-American school and becoming the first Black person to rise to Director of the Music Department. The same year, he earned another first—the first Black person to be awarded an honorary Doctor of Music degree from Oberlin Conservatory.
Dett passed away in 1943 while serving as the choral director for the USO, supporting troops overseas during World War II. As a composer, Dett published approximately 100 compositions, primarily for piano, voice, and choir. His two major works, Chariot Jubilee and The Ordering of Moses, both use African-American spirituals as thematic material. His legacy endures through his numerous arrangements of folk songs and spirituals, as well as collections of poems and essays, in which he warned about the danger of losing the real meaning of African-American music through commercialization.