Paul Moravec’s 2017 oratorio, Sanctuary Road, is a modern take on the classical oratorio form, portraying stories from the Underground Railroad rather than Biblical content. The libretto by Mark Campbell interprets slave narratives collected and published in 1872 in The Underground Railroad by William Still (1821–1902) of Philadelphia, a “conductor” who aided many fugitive slaves including his older brother. Some of the song texts are literal, as when Still interviews an escapee he has sheltered, but at other times more poetic, consisting of single words or phrases joined together to portray the collective experience of the enslaved who escaped to freedom. The oratorio’s title, however, was inspired by the modern concept of “Sanctuary City,” bringing contemporary resonance to the composition. The sixteen movement work for five soloists, chorus and orchestra was commissioned by Jody Spellun, a member of the Oratorio Society of New York, and this live recording captures the world premiere performance at Carnegie Hall by the OSNY Chorus and Orchestra under the baton of Kent Tritle.
Sanctuary Road opens with “Write,” featuring a spoken recitation of the complete title of Still’s book: The Underground Railroad: A Record of Facts, Authentic Narratives, Letters, &c, narrating the hardships, hair-breadth escapes and death struggles of the slaves in their efforts for freedom, as related by themselves and others, or witnessed by the author; together with sketches of some of the largest stockholders, and most liberal aiders and advisers, of the road. Bass-baritone Dashon Burton portrays Still here and in the three “Interview” movements that also use text from the book: “Write it down. Record, record. Chronicle.” Soloists sing out the names of individuals and the means by which they escaped—“On foot… on a steamer”—while the chorus responds with, “Our sacrifices, Our testimony. Our stories cannot be forgotten.”
The next movement, “Quietly,” is an ensemble piece for the vocal soloists, with surging romantic beauty, especially on the word, “free.” Another stunningly beautiful movement, “I Waited,” is also for chorus. In contrast, “Reward!” is the first of four fast-paced movements evoking fugitive slaves on the run by employing percussion instruments and frenetically urgent string writing. There are three other movements in this style, titled simply, “Run I,” “Run II,” and “Run III,” which portray the long journey of Wesley Harris, who was captured on the run, and then escaped from jail.
“Reward!” is undergirded by percussive orchestral urgency, as the choir sings names of escapees, quoting bounty amounts and descriptions based on posters sent to the North by hopeful slave-holders. Soloists have a brief ensemble moment before the movement ends with the word, “Philadelphia,” which signifies sanctuary.
The three “Interview” and “Run” segments give breathing room to the arias based on individual narratives. The first of these, “The Same Train,” narrates the story of Ellen Craft, a light-skinned woman who disguised herself as an elderly white man traveling by train with a slave, who was in fact her fiancé. Moravec references the recitative technique of classical oratorio at the beginning this movement, told in first person as the story unfolds. As before, the movement ends with the word, “Philadelphia.” The first of two “Interview” movements and “Run I” follow.
Baritone Malcolm J. Merriweather portrays another story of clever subterfuge: Henry “Box” Brown had himself shipped in a wooden box marked “This side up.” Unfortunately, those instructions were ignored and Henry rode part of the way upside-down, lamenting “If only those fools could READ.”
“I waited,” for chorus, “Run II,” and “Interview II,” come before the third characterization, “Aunt Abigail.” Abigail is the fictional aunt whose “death” occasions travel by train to Philadelphia by two mourning “nieces,” their faces covered by black veils. Moravec references laments of earlier music genres in overdone motives sung by soprano Laquita Mitchell and mezzo-soprano Raehann Bryce-Davis. The final story, “Rain,” an aria for soprano sung by Mitchell, is Clarissa Davis’s song of praise for a heavy rainstorm that gave her an opportunity to escape when most people were indoors. She sings to the rain, “Come down Noah’s Ark heavy. … When I’m free I’ll dance in the rain that hid me.”
A nine-minute Mozartean finale gives voice to the joyful expressions of freedom. Beginning with a solo by Dashon Burton (“Still”) using quotes from letters sent to him by fugitives he had aided, the chorus and soloists join together on the rousing final chorus, repeating the words, “Shout from every rooftop. Loud as can be: free.”
There are some moments of transcendent beauty. “I Waited,” for chorus, is particularly stunning and could stand alone as an anthem: “I waited, I waited patiently for the Lord, And He inclined unto me. And heard my calling.” “Rain” is a lovely aria with a unique message. These moments contrast with the more frantic “Run” movements, leaving the listener with a real feeling of having been on a several long journeys in fifty minutes.
Librettist Mark Campbell remained true to the stories of the enslaved individuals who escaped to freedom, sometimes using straightforward narrative, but mainly through hauntingly disjunct poetry. The brief “Interview” movements, which include passages from Still’s interviews with escapees, bring the brutality of slavery to light, as well as the humanity of the enslaved. “How were you treated?” and “Where are you from?” were Still’s standard interview questions. There is no “dialect” (Still did not use dialect in his book), and the musical style is fully modern, drawing from both tonal and atonal palettes rather than spirituals or other African American genres. At times Moravec’s orchestration resembles a soundtrack, and it is especially evocative when a character is running from slave catchers. Though intended as a concert work, it is easy to envision dancers, actors, or film added to the music for a multimedia experience.
After the conclusion of the oratorio, the recording features an additional twenty minutes of interviews with the vocalists, all of African diaspora heritage, who discuss their individual thoughts about the struggles endured by the characters they portrayed. The segment concludes with a brief discussion by Moravec and Campbell about their collaboration. The full texts are included in the liner notes to the CD, as well as a preface by Moravec and conductor Kent Tritle.
Sanctuary Road is a modern choral masterpiece, representing struggle and hope in the best of the oratorio tradition. As an American story, the oratorio is in a league with John Adams’s On the Transmigration of Souls, which commemorates the individuals killed in the September 11, 2001 attacks. The Oratorio Society of New York will be premiering a new “American historical oratorio” by Moravec in May 2020, A Nation of Others, which “captures the experience of immigrants arriving at Ellis Island and celebrates the fusion of cultures that gives our country its identity.”
Reviewed by Amy Edmonds, Music and Media Librarian, University Libraries, Ball State University