Much music has been written commemorating major historical events — which doesn’t make it any easier a proposition to pull off. The Cantate Chamber Singers , for a 30th anniversary season, gave a doozy of a commission: a cantata about race in America, focusing on the events of Selma, Ala., in 1965, but incorporating references to the whole range of subsequent history.
The result, “Rise,” with music by Judah Adashi and poetry by Tameka Cage Conley, had its world premiere Sunday afternoon at the Metropolitan AME church in downtown Washington, with the elite Howard University vocal ensemble “Afro Blue” mingling its voices with Cantate’s chorus.
How is a white male composer to approach this material? Very, very carefully. Adashi’s music sounded as if it were overwhelmed with respect. It wasn’t an easy task. As the first half of the program demonstrated, Cantate sings in a traditional choral style, without amplification (among four solo selections were a bright, ruddy “My Spirit Sang All Day” by Gerald Finzi and William Dawson’s “Soon Ah Will Be Done,” which juxtaposes whispery springy patter with half-shouted climaxes).
Afro Blue is a smaller group (nine singers performed Sunday) and uses handheld mikes to create a smooth, polished, studio-ready sound — with beatboxing as well as straight vocalism giving the effect, at times, of a full instrumental accompaniment. (Both sets included pieces about Martin Luther King Jr.; Afro Blue offered “Martin’s Theme” by Jimmy Owens and “Tell Him Not To Talk Too Long” by Mary Lou Williams, both arranged by the group’s founder, Howard professor Connaitre Miller.)
Another huge element was the poetic voice of Cage Conley, who read her texts antiphonally with Gwen Ifill, the “PBS NewsHour” co-anchor, during the performance. The poetry was already musical, with deliberate repetitions of words worked keeningly into its fabric: the name “Barack” like a litany in a poem (“Alpha and Omega”) that posits President Obama as the end of the arc that began on a bridge in Selma when protesters led by John Lewis, who would later be elected to Congress, were beaten down; the word “holy” — or was it “wholly?” — rung like a chime; the juxtaposition of “KKK” with “quick, quick, quick” in a poem that wondrously evoked both the violence of billy clubs and the softness of the nonviolent crowd on which they fell.
Adashi — a Baltimore-based composer who teaches at Peabody and founded the Evolution Contemporary Music Series, and who met Cage Conley when both were on a retreat at the Virginia Center for Creative Arts — responded to the power of the words by maintaining a light touch. Sometimes the choral groups sang a capella, miked voices and natural ones in tandem (no mean feat) or separately; sometimes, a piano, mallet percussion instruments and four strings provided a generally spare accompaniment of doublings and arpeggiated figures, with a flugelhorn (well played by Chris Shiley) providing the main melodic line when the voices were absent.
The musical ideas didn’t always seem to fuse completely with the words. I found the segue into gospel style — with finger-snapping — in the “holy, holy” section slightly distracting, though it certainly had historical resonance. But for the big points, the score generally built into the climactic peaks that are practically demanded by this strong material. How do you set the line “Don’t shoot, Mister; my body bleeds, as bodies do?” There is nothing to do but shout out, fortissimo, “My blood, my blood” in the poem “O Light,” or the eponymous “Rise! Rise! Rise!” at the end of the poignant, penultimate poem, “Remains.”
“Rise” is a tricky piece to judge. It fulfilled its role well: It was a powerful and feel-good statement for this fine organization, led strongly by its music director, Gisèle Becke. That it is not musically transporting is perhaps not relevant to its aspirations or its role. It certainly marshaled a lot of talent and a lot of goodwill to say something that needs to be said, and it remains a solid piece to perform on occasions of commemoration.