The CBSO gives an American cantata a long-delayed UK premiere

A UK PREMIERE AFTER 90 YEARS...

THE ORDERING OF MOSES
CBSO at Symphony Hall ****
Robert Nathaniel Dett's sacred cantata The Ordering of Moses was composed in 1932 and premiered in Cincinnati in 1937. It has had to wait until now for its UK premiere, and I can understand why.
The work is studiously written (it was presented as Dett's thesis for his Master of Music degree at Eastman School of Music), academically impeccable, just like so much of the Three Choirs Festival offerings until recent decades, and burns the midnight oil in the manner of Elgar's effortful oratorios
And it takes no risks, unlike Walton's Belshazzar's Feast composed a year earlier, and Tippett's A Child of our Time, composed at the beginning of World War II. Its orchestration is conventional, with heavy reliance on a solo cello, though the inclusion of chains is a symbolic novelty, the choral writing is certainly effective, but the extravagance of including in the solo vocal quartet a mezzo who only sings one number should have cost Dett his Master's hood.
There are some clues in the second half of this 50-minute piece that Dett actually knew the Walton, and it is intriguing to ponder whether Tippett had heard the broadcast premiere with its extensive quoting of Go Down Moses (both Dett and Tippett are writing about racial oppression), a spiritual which features so movingly in Tippett's great work.
To be fair to Dett, his depiction of the parting of the Red Sea is highly imaginative, the chorus ululating, the orchestra undulating in a delicate dance rhythm. And there is a section which might even have been in Bernstein's subconscious when he composed the Cha-Cha in West Side Story (of which more anon).
The performance of The Ordering of Moses from the CBSO, CBSO Chorus and heroic soloists Nadine Benjamin, Chrystal E Williams, Rodrick Dickson and Eric Greene was magnificent under the admirable conductor Joshua Weilerstein. Simon Halsey's chorus just seems to grow and grow in awesome projection, and the sound made by all concerned as the cantata reached its conclusion drew a huge standing ovation.
Weilerstaein had earlier conducted appropriately balletically but with total clarity a captivating account of the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, the CBSO playing like a 90-piece Big Band with some spectacular percussion-playing, not least in the steamy Mambo.
And we had begun with William Schuman's orchestration (owing a lot to Max Reger's Mozart Variations and Fugue) of the young Charles Ives' glorious Variations on 'America', given with fluency and wit, and with a virtuoso trumpet to boot. When the full theme was solemnly announced after the playful introduction we should all have stood as we recognised "God Save Our Gracious Queen".
Christopher Morley

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