New recording of Dett’s “The Ordering of Moses” pays a debt

This release of R. Nathaniel Dett’s “The Ordering of Moses” is important for several reasons. It’s a performance by the commissioning ensemble, it revives a major work by a black composer and it rights a wrong.

R. Nathaniel Dett (born in Canada) was a well-known black pianist, choral conductor, arranger, and composer who spent most of his career in the States. Dett used African-American spirituals and folk music in his compositions. He took Dvorak’s admonition that a composer should look to their own culture for inspiration to heart.

“The Ordering of Moses” was commissioned by the May Festival Chorus in 1937, and premiered by the Chorus and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra that same year. The premiere was broadcast live on NBC, but the network cut the program short. Although no official reason was given, it’s alleged that the network caved to complaints about airing black music.

All of which makes this recording so meaningful. James Conlon leads the May Festival Chorus and Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in a live performance broadcast by WQXR in New York. This time, the work was broadcast in its entirety. That’s all fine — but is “The Ordering” any good?

I think so. Dett’s composition is in a conservative post-romantic style that lends itself to rich harmonies and expressive melodies. Spirituals are used throughout the work, providing the motivic foundations for the oratorio. And those spirituals become somewhat refined in the process. There’s no bending of pitches, and the rhythms are foursquare and lose some fluidity.

And yet, the use of the material gives the work its power in a way that European-inspired motifs could not. The fugal treatment of “Go Down Moses” in “And from a burning bush” is particularly effective. The opening movement features a clanking of chains, viscerally illustrating the concept of the Israelites’ slavery.

Also of note (I think), is the “March of the Israelites.” It’s a beautiful movement with unusual harmonies that anticipates the Biblical epic scores of Miklos Rozsa by twenty years.

The performances are all first-rate, as is the recording. Highly recommended.

R. Nathaniel Dett: The Ordering of Moses
Latonia Moore, soprano; Ronnita Nicole Miller, mezzo-soprano; Rodrick Dixon, tenor; Donnie Ray Albert, baritone
May Festival Chorus; Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra; James Conlon, conductor
live recording
Bridge Records 9462

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