Two Masterworks by Margaret Bonds

This release presents two major choral works by Black composer Margaret Bonds. And they couldn’t come at a more opportune moment. Bonds composed “Credo” in 1967. The orchestral version premiered in 1972, just weeks after her death. “Simon Bore the Cross” was composed a year earlier. Bonds never heard it performed.

Both works are monumental in scope, and powerful in their delivery. Malcolm J. Merriweather and the Dessoff Choirs and Orchestra deliver committed, heartfelt performances. Janinah Burnett, soprano, and Dashon Burton, bass-baritone are at the top of their games. Burnett exhibits great skill (and musicality) with the wide leaps Bonds demands.

“Credo” is a setting of a poem by W.E.B. Du Bois. It’s not a simple statement of religious faith. Dubois’ 1904 text is an unequivocal belief in the inevitability of racial justice.

“I believe in Liberty for all men… the right to breathe and the right to vote, the freedom to choose their friends, enjoy the sunshine and ride on the railroads, uncursed by color.” The imagery may be a little dated. But when one of the most infamous quotes of recent memory is “I can’t breathe,” well, we’re still not there.

Bonds’ cantata “Simon Bore the Cross” was a collaboration with Langston Hughes. In the Bible, Jesus became too weak to carry his cross to his execution site. Roman soldiers grabbed a North African, Simon of Cyrene to carry it for him. Hughes saw it as a metaphor for African-Americans’ complicated relationship with Christianity.

Bonds used the spiritual “He never said a grumblin’ word” as the foundation for the music. It’s effective and poignant. The references in both text and music make this a work of deep spirituality. And a complex spirituality at that.

Recordings like this show how original Bonds was as a composer. And how important she should be in the tapestry of American classical music.

Highly recommended.

Margaret Bonds: Credo; Simon Bore the Cross
Janinah Burnett, soprano; Dashon Burton, bass-baritone
The Dessoff Choirs and Orchestra; Malcolm J. Merriweather, conductor

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