The Harlem Chamber Players Bring A Black Composer’s Biblical Oratorio To Life

“The Ordering of Moses” includes an orchestra of 60 musicians, a choir of 75 and four soloists.

This is the biggest and most ambitious concert we’ve staged to date,” said Liz Player, who co-founded the Harlem Chamber Players in 2008. The concert is presented as part of Harlem Renaissance 100, a celebration of the centenary.

Dett was born in 1882, the grandson of slaves who traveled to Canada via the Underground Railroad. His family moved back to the United States when Dett was a young child, and he earned a degree in composition from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. Dett has taught at several colleges and served as president of the National Association of Negro Musicians.

“He is considered a composer of the Harlem Renaissance,” Player said, “because he enjoyed infusing the works of Negro spirituals into his own music.” And indeed, “The Ordering of Moses”, which Dett composed in 1932, features the well-known spiritual “Go Down, Moses” as a major thematic element.

“There’s something about the way Nathaniel Dett captures the cultural folk sound of the African-American diaspora and the motif,” said bandleader Damien Sneed. “He arranges it really well, and it’s really inside the classic orchestral sound. And he does a good job of balancing the orchestra and the choir.

The oratorio premiered on a national NBC radio broadcast in 1937, but was discontinued long before its conclusion. (The network cited “prior engagements,” but some historians have speculated that racist complaints were the cause.)

The work has only been performed sporadically since, according to tenor Chauncey Packer, who plays the title role of Moses. “I find it very interesting that even at the start of the play, it was smothered and not allowed to be completely free – a play about freedom,” Packer said.

Packer says he gets chills when he thinks about his role and Dett’s personal story. “That I’m playing Moses, and he’s a direct descendant of Black Moses, Harriet Tubman — there’s an equity here,” Packer said. “There is a huge equity.”

For Sneed, the Dett oratorio “encapsulates and exudes nearly every possible musical idiom, every possible rhythm, texture, color, timbre”. He expressed the hope that the piece would become “a normal part of the orchestral music canon, the choral music canon and, of course, the oratorio genre”.

For now, with tickets priced at $25, Liz Player hopes a lot of people will find out on Friday. “We’re coming to Juneteenth, and it’s about black liberation,” she said. “I hope it is about breaking free from this pandemic. And so I just hope people come and feel really refreshed and rejuvenated and even triumphant.

Harlem Chamber Players’ presentation of “The Ordering of Moses” will be hosted by WQXR announcer Terrance McKnight and taped for delayed broadcast on WQXR-FM.

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