Rehearsal for Friday’s performance of “The Ordering of Moses” at Riverside Church in Harlem was running a little late Thursday night … 85 years late.
The sweeping and dramatic classical music piece was first performed in 1937 in what was supposed to be the historic first national radio broadcast ever of a new classical work by an African American composer, R. Nathaniel Dett.
But as the broadcast, on the old NBC radio network began, it seemed that much of America would not abide such an achievement from a Black man.
“About 3/4 of the way through it was just abruptly cut and there’s no record of the reason why,” said Liz Plater of the Harlem Chamber Players.
The theory, though, is that as the soaring and poignant story played on the radio, the network was getting angry phone calls because the composer was African American. So, the broadcast was stopped.
The oratorio, bold and moving, tells the story of the emancipation of African Americans through an old testament lens, all told by the grandson of escaped American slaves.
“I believe Nathaniel Dett and my ancestors that have come before me have set a precedence and have also passed the baton, so I’m fulfilling my calling and my duty to take the baton and to complete what they started and to pass it to the next generation,” conductor Damian Sneed said.
“I personally as a Black man, feel and identify with the children Israel as they grow across the sea and escape bondage into the land of the promised land,” tenor Chauncey Packer said.
It’s a grand and sweeping story about the reclaiming of history and finishing what Nathaniel Dett started long ago.
All that is one reason why the performance is so vital today. The other reason is — it’s so good.
“They will absolutely hear some of the most phenomenal singers and musicians on this side of the Milky Way galaxy,” Sneed said.
Friday’s performance is part of Harlem’s Juneteenth celebration.
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