Damien Geter’s ‘African American Requiem’ turns national grief into powerful music

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If I had one word to sum up composer and bass-baritone Damien Geter, I would say “busy”. Or at least that’s 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 loaded part: last week it was announced that Virginia Opera and the Richmond Symphony Orchestra commissioned Geter and librettist Jessica Murphy Moo to produce “Loving vs. Virginia,” an operatic account of the United States Supreme Court case involving the interracial marriage of Mildred and Richard Loving. On June 12, the Washington Chorus will premiere its “Justice Symphony” in DC as part of the choir’s “Justice & Peace” program. at the Kennedy Center. And his one-act opera “Holy Ground”, written with a librettist Lilac Palm Treeis planned for the first to Glittering glass this summer. He and Palmer previously collaborated on “American Apollo,” my favorite of the batch of pandemic, Plexi-protected short operas presented digitally as part of the Washington National Opera. American Opera Initiative in 2021.

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

In a phone interview last week, Geter said he had always considered himself a “hidden composer”. The election of Donald Trump in 2016 changed that; he felt called to action. In a burst of inspiration, he composed “An African-American Requiem” as a musical response to police violence against black Americans, modeled on Verdi’s famous “Requiem” of 1874.

“I felt like we made a lot of progress with Barack Obama as president,” Geter said. “Progress as a country, progress for black people. And I knew that was going to fall apart with Trump as president.

The absence of anyone saying no to him and the support of the Portland-based Resonance Ensemble enabled an ambitious and transformative vision — a vision fully and radically realized at the Kennedy Center on Monday.

Geter described Verdi’s “Requiem” to me as a “perfect piece”. He also cited Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem” as a conceptual model for its intertwining of Latin and English texts, as well as Krzysztof Penderecki’s “Polish Requiem”, which here and there casts a noticeable harmonic (and dissonant) shadow. But Geter, 42, also seems to derive an extraordinary sense of ability from these works.

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A chorus of 123 singers took over the concert hall stage – the able and combined forces of the Choral Arts Symphonic Chorus (led by Scott Tucker in his last concert at the Kennedy Center as artistic director), members of the Ensemble Resonance (which gave the long-delayed premiere earlier this month in Portland with the Oregon Symphony Orchestra), and members of NEWorks Voices of America’s Nolan Williams Jr.

Although slightly hazy in the first minutes of the concert, the chorus quickly tightened into a clear and luminous column of sound, animated with great humanity by Williams and Tucker, who shared the direction for the evening.

Williams was also instrumental in assembling the large black and wonderfully balanced part NEWorks Philharmonic Orchestra for the evening. And its innovative “Spirituals Suite for Choir and Orchestra”, excerpts from which open the program, make full use of the impressive expressive palette of the young orchestra. The two movements selected were both an homage to and a transformation of their respective sources, “A City Called Heaven” and “Done Made My Vow”, the latter of which found the chorus bursting into the ecstatic exclamations of a freshly rescued congregation. . In sound and spirit, it was a perfect introduction to the intricacies of Geter’s vast project.

The ease with which Geter works on a large scale is one of the ways he stays true to his inspiration. And in several places his ‘Requiem’ emulates Verdi’s intra-movement structures: the ‘Introit’, with its brilliant a cappella chorale passages, and the shock of the ‘Dies Irae’ each have a familiar form. The slowness of the visit of its 20 stations and its interplay between choir and soloists feel very appropriate.

But Geter takes full advantage of the wide-open emotional space offered by the form, offering completely different paths through grief, and making ‘Requiem’ a creation all his own. The “Sanctus” – a fugue for double choir – here becomes “Kumbaya”, which conveys gratitude and praise through its plea for the deliverance of souls. And he alters the “Ingemisco”, supplanting its core of guilt with a pair of Bible verses suggested by soprano Brandie Sutton (who performed at the Portland premiere).

Here and there, Geter abandons the artifice of the libretto entirely in favor of lines that carry the jagged edge of the captured audio. A recitative just before the “Dies Irae” consists only of lyrics spoken by Jamilia Land, the aunt of 22-year-old Stephon Clark, who in 2018 was shot dead by police in his grandmother’s garden: “We live in communities that are like war zones! – one of soprano Jacqueline Echols’ many vocal highlights, who imbued the lines with a haunting dread.

The “Recordare” alternates passages of its Latin invocation of a “just judge of revenge” with a single line from a poem about police violence by Pittsburgh teenager Antwon Rose, written two years before he was killed. be shot and killed by a policeman: “I’m confused and scared.”

And Eric Garner’s last words, etched into national racial discourse by mass protest – “I can’t breathe” – were sung by tenor Norman Shankle as his own searing move, shortly after a siren crossed the surface of the orchestra. (It should be mentioned that Geter composed the “Requiem” four years before the murder of George Floyd reactivated those words in the public consciousness.)

Shankle provided some of the biggest vocal thrills of the night – and one of his deepest deja vu moments: a gloriously edited “Liber Scriptus” included passages from the folk song “There’s a Man Who Goes take names”, a variation 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.

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Overton, too, was an incandescent force throughout the evening, his “Lux aeterna” a sparkling display of his instrument. Atop a canvas of strings and chimes, plunging woodwinds and radiant horns, Overton’s voice was both monumental and dangerously vulnerable.

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

Wells’ cataloging of lynchings and their attempts to justify (“quarreling with a white man”, “practicing voodoo”) was chillingly set to visibly sympathetic music that seemed intent on concealing its dark content – a wry commentary on how the raw realities of racial violence in America are often masked behind a veneer of consumer culture. It was one of the many 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 congregation onstage for the final movement, the moving “In Paradisum/Walk Together Children,” which closed “An African-American Requiem” on a note of hope that was itself provocative. , situating a promised land on the faint horizon of its final notes.

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