The world premiere of Damien Geter’s An African American Requiem delivered a powerful, beautiful, and dramatic plea for justice, mercy, understanding–and a beam of light from the heavens–on Saturday, May 7, at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. Conductor William Eddins led the Oregon Symphony, an 80-voice choir, soloists Brandie Sutton, Karmesha Peake, Bernard Holcomb, and Kenneth Overton to make an emphatic, emotional statement that resonated long and deep for this performance, which began at 6 pm in order to be broadcast live by 89.9 FM in Portland and WQXR in New York City.
Commissioned by the Resonance Ensemble, Geter completed An African American Requiem in 2019, but its performance was delayed for two years because of the pandemic. Unfortunately, the continuing discrimination and violence against Black people across the nation has made the soul-searching impact of the music and text as relevant as ever.
The twenty-movement work followed the traditional Latin liturgy and was interspersed with modern texts – civil rights declarations, poetry, and the last words of Eric Garner – and three spirituals: ‘There’s a Man Goin’ Round,’ ‘Kumbaya,’ and ‘Walk Together Children.’ The alternation between Latin and English was similar in some ways to Britten’s War Requiem. S. Renee Mitchell, poet-in-residence for Resonance Ensemble, recited a poem as part of the last movement.
The immediacy of the music gripped listeners right away with a stately “Introit” that seamlessly shifted between ominous and hopeful moods. Peake’s velvety mezzo gave the descending lines of the “Kyrie” a slightly relaxed and improvised quality. Sudden punches from the percussion broke up the calm as Sutton cried out “We are living in communities that are like war zones,” and the choir launched into a demonstrative “Dies Irae” with dynamic brass accompaniment. Overton’s resonant baritone continued to build upon the tension until a police siren pierced through and Holcomb exclaimed “I can’t breathe” in the high tenor tessitura and later in a loud whisper as the heartbeat of drums faded and stopped.
After the choir sang the “Mors stupebit,” it segued into “There’s a man goin’ round” and a mix of the soloists. The “Quid sum miser” with Peake started a more agitated feeling, which continued into the “Rex tremendae” with the choir impressively sustaining the words “Salva me” (save me). The “Recordare” featured short, accented lines from the choir that the soloists interjected with “I am confused and afraid” from the poem by Antwon Rose, a teenager who was killed by a police officer in East Pittsburgh in 2018.
In the “Ingemisco,” Sutton soared with stratospherically high notes, joyfully proclaiming the promise of justice, and the choir followed it with a “Confutatis” that had a dance-like rhythm. The “Lacrimosa” began with the tune of the Star-Spangled Banner, performed in a minor key by principal clarinetist James Shields–catching everyone’s attention when the note corresponding to the word “free” was not played. This was ingeniously wrapped into the text of the “Lacrimosa,” making it one of the most memorable moments of the evening.
After a tender “Offertory” from the quartet of soloists came “Sanctus”/“Kum Ba Yah” that offered a tricky syncopation. Next came a slightly jazzy “Agnus Dei,” and a “Lux aeterna” with Overton singing triumphantly of the perpetual light shining on the saints. The choir set up a solemn “Libera Me,” which led to Peake’s sung recitation of “Lynching is color-line murder” from a speech by Ida B. Wells.
“In Paradisum” included the spoken poetry by Mitchell and transitioned to an uplifting rendition of “Walk together children,” which concluded the piece with the lines “Don’t you get weary, there’s a great camp meeting in the Promise Land.”
Tumultuous applause, bravos, and a standing ovation erupted immediately. Geter, wearing a bright red suit, was showered with loud cheers, capping a momentous event with heartfelt gestures to the musicians, choir, audience, and a big hug for Eddins. The orchestra terrifically conveyed the emotion of the piece under Eddins’ command. The soloists were stellar. The choir (a consortium of singers from the Resonance Ensemble, Kingdom Sound Gospel Choir, and members of regional choirs) was expertly prepared by Resonance Artistic Director Katherine FitzGibbon, and it sounded spectacular. There were some moments when the orchestra was too loud, but, all in all, the performance was a huge success.
The next performance of An African American Requiem will take place at the Kennedy Center on May 23 with the Choral Arts Symphonic Chorus under the direction of Scott Tucker. According to FitzGibbon, the Resonance Ensemble and Choral Arts will make a commercial recording of the requiem later this year
Geter’s star is rising, and if he writes more music like An African American Requiem, he will be shining for a long time to come.