Historic Oratorio Takes the Stage Locally and in New York

On May 7, 1937 — exactly 77 years ago this week — the Cincinnati May Festival presented the American premiere of The Ordering of Moses, an oratorio by Robert Nathaniel Dett, an African American compos

click to enlarge Latonia Moore
Latonia Moore

On May 7, 1937 — exactly 77 years ago this week — the Cincinnati May Festival presented the American premiere of The Ordering of Moses, an oratorio by Robert Nathaniel Dett, an African American composer, conductor and professor. It was broadcast nationally by NBC radio, received ecstatic ovations as well as glowing local and national reviews and was revived for the 1956 May Festival. But prior to 1956, the work was rarely heard and Dett seemed headed for obscurity.

Thanks to the work of determined researchers, including May Festival executive director Steven Sunderman, Dett’s compositions are being heard and appreciated. The May Festival opens its 2014 season with The Ordering of Moses Wednesday, and two days later the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and May Festival Chorus perform the same program in New York’s Carnegie Hall as part of the Spring for Music series (known as S4M).

Despite the oratorio’s initial success, tracking down information on Dett and even finding a score often led to dead ends.  

“I’ve been trying to find out more about it for 10 or 15 years,” Sunderman says. “I knew it had legs for the festival to revive it, but there were no recordings and we couldn’t find a publisher.” A copy of the score finally turned up in the CSO library and an acetate copy of the radio broadcast was discovered at Indiana University’s library.

Since 2002, the May Festival has presented works by African American composers, and The Ordering of Moses was enthusiastically endorsed by music director James Conlon and director of choruses Robert Porco. 

“Dett was a pioneer, one of the first to incorporate the music of African American culture into Western classical styles,” Porco says. “He’s a great composer. His setting and harmonization of ‘Go Down Moses’ is so powerful and the final chorus is a hand-clapping gospel tune that has the feeling of church on Sunday.”

Dett was born in 1882 in Canada and grew up in New York. He graduated from Oberlin Conservatory and earned a master’s degree from the Eastman School of Music. For more than two decades, Dett headed the music department at Hampton University in Virginia, creating a world-renowned choir dedicated to performing African American music. 

Dett’s dedication to synthesizing African American culture into classical styles can be heard in his compositions and arrangements for chorus, orchestra, piano and organ that are based in spirituals and African American folk tunes. 

Dett wrote The Ordering of Moses in 1932 as a master’s thesis for Eastman. He worked on revisions for the next five years, until its Cincinnati premiere in ’37. The story of the Israelites’ enslavement in Egypt and Moses’ iconic role in leading them to freedom draws on texts from the books of Exodus and Lamentations, as well as traditional spirituals. 

The chorus sings the Children of Israel and soloists portray Moses, Miriam, The Voice of God, The Voice of Israel and The Word. This performance’s all-star cast includes soprano Latonia Moore, mezzo Ronnita Nicole Miller, tenor Rodrick Dixon and baritone Donnie Ray Albert. 

The CSO and the May Festival Chorus are among six organizations chosen to be part of Spring for Music, an innovative series of concerts rooted in the belief that, according to S4M’s mission statement, “An orchestra’s obligation is to lead and not follow taste. As such, programming needs to advance, and not just satisfy, expectations.” 

“The May Festival has a long commitment to commissions and premieres, and since 2002 programs include works by African American composers,” Sunderman says, even as he acknowledges Cincinnati’s past Jim Crow policies. Although Dett was brought on stage for a rousing ovation, he couldn’t stay in any downtown hotel. And the May Festival Chorus did not admit African Americans. 

The NBC radio broadcast had its own story: The live feed was interrupted after 45 minutes, followed by organ music. No reason was given, but researchers speculate that racist callers forced the abrupt ending. 

Seventy-seven years later, WGUC will broadcast Friday’s performance via live stream provided by New York’s classical music station WQXR, and it will be an opportunity for community celebration. 

“We’re making the signal available to Washington Park’s sound system, beginning at 7:30 p.m.,” Sunderman says. “Bring a picnic, bring friends and celebrate a remarkable composer.” 

“It will be all 55 minutes,” he adds. “Barring satellite issues, there won’t be any interruptions.” 

The Cincinnati May Festival presents THE ORDERING OF MOSES and John Adams’ Harmonium Wednesday at Music Hall. The community broadcast takes place Friday at Washington Park. More information and tickets for Wednesday: 513-381-3300 or mayfestival.com.

Anne Arenstein

Anne Arenstein is a frequent contributor to CityBeat, focusing on the performing arts. She has written for the Enquirer, the Cincinnati Symphony, Santa Fe Opera and Cincinnati Opera, and conducted interviews for WVXU's Around Cincinnati. In 2009, Anne was named an NEA Fellow in Classical Music and Opera Journalism...
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