Slavery Documents completes brilliant trilogy
World premiere of a new work
by Donald Sur.
The Cantata Singers & Ensemble,
David Hoose, Music Director.
Symphony Hall, March 23.
By JONATHAN RICHMOND
DONALD SUR'S Slavery Documents is as profound as it is disturbing, and it was given a powerful premiere on March 23 by the Cantata Singers. It is the third of three works commissioned by the Cantata Singers, all dealing with social issues. John Harbison's The Flight Into Egypt, the first commission, reflects on the plight of the homeless; Peter Child's Estrella: The Assassination of Augusto C'esar Sandino, commissioned subsequently, on political strife in Central America.
The completion of the trilogy with Sur's new work cements the Cantata Singers as a force of international importance in creating new works that shine not only on a musical level, but which live for their audiences, delivering messages to make them think, make them weep, and send them away renewed.
Sur's libretto juxtaposes Cotton Mather's "The Negro Christianized" -- a eulogy on the joys of the slave who has found Jesus -- with advertisements for the return of escaped slaves and other texts which uncover the realities of slavery and the mentality which held it in place.
And Christian slaves may challenge as their own,
The blessings claimed in fabled states alone --
The cabin home, not comfortless, though rude,
Light daily labour, and abundant food,
The sturdy health that temperate habits yield,
The cheerful song that rings in every field.
Sur's music plays the role of truth-teller, hitting like the real lashes the texts describe, but delivering a feeling of numbing hollowness to accompany Mather's self-deluding -- if not downright dishonest -- lines. Taking his audience on an epic roller-coaster ride, Sur plunges his listeners into darkness, lifts them to a false image of light, and submerges them in obscurity once more. As his work progresses, it becomes clear that the roller coaster's world is one of pure evil, a system of unquestioned assumptions about human life which allows slavery to persist.
For Slavery Documents, the Cantata Singers augmented both their chorus and orchestra, producing strong well-directed showings from both. The five soloists contributed rich performances, too. The piece opened with sounds of massive turbulence for the questioning of "Who is that Great GOD whom you and all men are to serve," trenchant irony introduced with the choral refrain: "and there is no God but he." A banjo enters, describing the lot of the supposedly contented slave; a radiant harp melody focuses attention, its beauty serving to underline evil. The harp also later describes the "Warm social joys [which] surround the Negro's cot," its unworldly serenity conveying falsehood.
During an account of a South Carolina statute, a flute sweetly seeps through the thick authoritarian textures which surround and seek to drown it. But a description of lashes descends percussively, tenor Rockland Osgood vocally sounding the pain.
A quotation from Ephesians instructing servants to "be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ" came across with almost unbearable heaviness. There was an extraordinary climax on the word "Christ," the strings continuing mercilessly after the voices stop. The New Testament text continues "not in the way of eye-service, as men-pleasers, but as servants of Christ," but this is not included in Sur's libretto. Sur includes only the false biblical interpretation which allowed slavery to be legitimized.
The accounts of the descriptions of runaway slaves conveyed particular horror, but none more than the finale, "Runaway, a negro woman and two children; a few days before she went off, I burnt her with a hot iron on the left side of her face, I tried to make the letter M."
The score contains many fugal elements looking back to Bach; Sur also follows on from a Mozartean tradition of allowing his music to speak truth while the words to which it is set pour forth lies. But his message is original and, in the end, our ability to freely listen to it and to be exposed to its ultimate truth, is life-affirming.
The large audience stayed longer than usual after the concert ended, discussing the work in the lobby and looking at the drawings and texts by children displayed there. "We all are together as one, so let's act that way," said one child's voice. Donald Sur's work provides the prospect that we might do so.