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‘An African-American Requiem’ turns national grief into powerful music

The Choral Arts Society of Washington gives composer Damien Geter’s ambitious new work its East Coast premiere at the Kennedy Center.

The Choral Arts Society presented Damien Geter's “An African-American Requiem” at the Kennedy Center on Monday evening. (Shannon Finney Photography)
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If I had but one word to sum up composer and bass-baritone Damien Geter, I’d have to go with “busy.” Or at least, that is what I would have chosen before Monday, when the Choral Arts Society of Washington presented the East Coast premiere of Geter’s “An African-American Requiem.”

Now I think I’ll go with “major.”

First the busy part: Last week it was announced that Virginia Opera and the Richmond Symphony have commissioned Geter and librettist Jessica Murphy Moo to produce “Loving vs. Virginia,” an operatic telling of the U.S. Supreme Court case concerning the interracial marriage of Mildred and Richard Loving. On June 12, the Washington Chorus will give his “Justice Symphony” its D.C. premiere as part of the chorus’s “Justice & Peace” program at the Kennedy Center. And his one-act opera “Holy Ground,” written with librettist Lila Palmer, is set to premiere at Glimmerglass this summer. He and Palmer previously collaborated on “American Apollo,” my favorite of the pandemic-shorted and Plexi-shielded batch of short operas digitally presented as part of Washington National Opera’s American Opera Initiative in 2021.

(With all of this output as a composer, it’s easy to forget that Geter also is a celebrated bass-baritone, who just last week sang Beethoven’s Ninth with the Richmond Symphony.)

In a phone interview last week, Geter said he’d always considered himself a “closeted composer.” The election of Donald Trump in 2016 changed that; he felt called into action. In a rush of inspiration, he composed “An African-American Requiem” as a musical response to police violence against Black Americans, modeled after Verdi’s landmark 1874 “Requiem.”

“I felt like we had made a lot of progress with Barack Obama as president,” Geter said. “Progress as a country, progress for Black people. And I knew that that was going to come crashing down with Trump as president.”

The absence of anyone telling him no and the support of the Portland-based Resonance Ensemble provided an allowance for an ambitious, transformative vision — one fully and radically realized at the Kennedy Center on Monday.

Geter described Verdi’s “Requiem” to me as a “perfect piece.” He also pointed to Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem” as a conceptual model for his interweaving of Latin and English texts, as well as the “Polish Requiem” of Krzysztof Penderecki, who casts a perceptible harmonic (and dissonant) shadow here and there. But Geter, 42, also seems to derive from these works an extraordinary sense of capacity.

At 60, Benjamin Britten’s ‘War Requiem’ inspires fresh chills

A chorus of 123 singers took over the Concert Hall stage — the capable and combined forces of the Choral Arts Symphonic Chorus (led by Scott Tucker in his final Kennedy Center concert as artistic director), members of the Resonance Ensemble (who gave the work’s long-delayed premiere earlier this month in Portland with the Oregon Symphony), and members of Nolan Williams Jr.’s NEWorks Voices of America.

Though slightly blurred in the first minutes of the concert, the chorus quickly tightened into a bright, clear column of sound, animated with ample humanity by Williams and Tucker, who split conducting duties for the evening.

Williams was also essential in assembling the largely Black and wonderfully balanced NEWorks Philharmonic Orchestra for the evening. And his innovative “Spirituals Suite for Choir and Orchestra,” excerpts of which opened the program, made full of use of the young orchestra’s impressive expressive range. The two movements selected were both a tribute to and transformation of their respective source material, “A City Called Heaven” and “Done Made My Vow,” the latter of which found the chorus bursting into the ecstatic exclamations of a freshly saved congregation. In sound and spirit, it was a perfect primer to the complexities of Geter’s expansive project.

Geter’s ease working on a grand scale is one way he remains faithful to his inspiration. And in several places, his “Requiem” emulates the intra-movement structures of Verdi’s: The “Introit,” with its glowing a cappella choral passages, and the shock of the “Dies Irae” each feel familiar in form. The slow visitation of its 20 stations and its interplay between chorus and soloists feel appropriately appropriated.

But Geter takes full advantage of the wide-open emotional space offered by the form, offering completely different pathways through mourning, and making the “Requiem” very much his own creation. The “Sanctus” — a fugue for double chorus — here becomes “Kumbaya,” which threads gratitude and praise through its plea for the delivery of souls. And he alters the “Ingemisco,” supplanting its core of guilt with a pair of Bible verses suggested to him by the soprano Brandie Sutton (who performed at the Portland premiere).

Here and there, Geter abandons the artifice of libretto entirely in favor of lines that bear the serrated edge of captured audio. A recitative just before the “Dies Irae” consists solely of words spoken by Jamilia Land, the aunt of 22-year-old Stephon Clark, who in 2018 was shot by police in his grandmother’s backyard: “We are living in communities that are like war zones!” — one of many vocal highlights from soprano Jacqueline Echols, who imbued the lines with a haunting measure of terror.

The “Recordare” alternates passages of its Latin invocation of a “just judge of vengeance” with a single line from a poem on police violence by Pittsburgh teen Antwon Rose, written two years before he was fatally shot by a police officer: “I am confused and afraid.”

And Eric Garner’s final words, etched into the national racial discourse by mass protest — “I can’t breathe” — were sung by tenor Norman Shankle as its own searing movement, not long after a siren cuts through the surface of the orchestra. (It bears mentioning that Geter composed the “Requiem” four years before George Floyd’s murder would reactivate those words in the public consciousness.)

Shankle supplied some of the night’s greatest vocal thrills — and one of its most profound moments of deja vu: A gloriously altered “Liber Scriptus” included passages from the folk song “There’s a Man Going Around Taking Names,” a variation of which Shankle and bass-baritone Kenneth Overton also sang as part of Adolphus Hailstork’s own requiem for victims of racial violence, “A Knee on the Neck,” premiered by the National Philharmonic in March.

National Philharmonic premieres ‘A Knee on the Neck,’ a powerful tribute to George Floyd

Overton, too, was an incandescent force through the evening, his “Lux aeterna” a gleaming display of his instrument. Atop a scrim of strings and chimes, dipping woodwinds and radiant horns, Overton’s voice was both monumental and precariously vulnerable.

Perhaps the most shocking of Geter’s renovations to the architecture of the “Requiem” is his incorporation of a long stretch of fiery prose by the early-20th-century Black journalist and suffragist Ida B. Wells, compellingly stretched into an expansive aria by mezzo-soprano Karmesha Peake, who delivered stunning emotional colors and striking presence all night.

Wells’s cataloguing of lynchings and their attempted justifications (“quarreling with a White man,” “practicing voodooism”) was chillingly set atop conspicuously likable music that seemed intent to gloss over its grim content — a wry comment on how the raw realities of racial violence in America are often obscured behind a veneer of consumer culture. It was one of several times the “Requiem” seemed to double as an indictment of a nation’s refusal to feel its own pain.

Poet S. Renee Mitchell joined the assembly onstage for the final movement, the stirring “In Paradisum/Walk Together Children,” which ended “An African-American Requiem” on a note of hope that itself felt defiant, situating a promised land on the faint horizon of its final notes.

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