By a sobering coincidence of timing, the world premiere of "Rise," a cantata by Judah Adashi that uses Tameka Cage Conley poems reflecting on the civil rights movement, occurred in Washington on the day Freddie Gray died 40 miles away.
Exactly one year later, "Rise" received its Baltimore premiere before a large, diverse and appreciative crowd Tuesday night at Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church.
This was, on many levels, a significant event. Given the peg "RiseBmore2016" and sponsored by the Peabody Institute, it provided a great example of how activist artists (or artistic activists) have responded to last year's unrest; have provoked fresh thoughts about tough issues; have sought to bring people together in a search for understanding and healing.
An hour before Tuesday's concert, a panel discussion, Arts and Activism in Baltimore, featured such voices as Baltimore-born Muslim writer Tariq Toure. Later, Toure read a tense new poem with the refrain "I looked Freddie in the eye today." The whole evening seemed to reflect aspects of that sentiment, in one way or another.
Adashi, who earned his graduate degrees at Peabody and teaches there, composes with one foot in classical traditions, another in pop/jazz/rock. It's not easy to straddle genres. Adashi does so with naturalness and expressive impact.
As a prelude to "Rise," cellist Levena Johanson performed "The Beauty of the Protest," a new work titled after a comment by photographer Devin Allen, whose chronicle of the Baltimore unrest drew widespread attention and admiration.
In an interview, Allen spoke of his desire for "people to see the beauty of the protest." Adashi provides a way for people to hear it.
The score, which calls on the cellist to do some singing while playing, suggests a solemn incantation, launched by an opening theme with a rise-and-fall motion, and fueled by reiterative harmonic patterns. The textually spare vocal part adds a haunting touch. Johanson performed the piece admirably.
"Rise" did not start out with a connection to Gray's death. It cannot help but take on that extra weight now.
Conley's poetry recalls the high costs of seeking justice in 1965 and ever since. Her imagery is often striking, nowhere more so than in "O, Light (From Troy to All Cities)," written for Congressman John Lewis:
... a brother has fallen, again & oh, the falling again, the marching again tears again, hands up heads down ...
There's something already musical in the cadences of the poems used in "Rise" — the refrain of the word "Barack" in "Alpha & Omega," for example; the repetition of the word "holy" in "MericanAnthem."
Adashi has responded effectively to the Conley's words. His cantata does not hammer points home, but often takes a subtle route that becomes all the more telling, as when choristers intone the chilling words "We cannot breathe" to music that somehow keeps anger at bay.
The assured vocal writing is resonant of spirituals and gospel songs, without slipping into mere imitation; Adashi's style always comes through.
The spare instrumental scoring includes a plaintive, reiterative harmonic pattern in the piano (with a gentle brass overlay) that opens the cantata and returns subsequently, exerting a hypnotic pull each time. And the simple, rising two-note phrase played at the end of the piece likewise proved haunting.
"Rise" was sturdily performed by Afro Blue (members of this ensemble delivered the many solos stylishly), Howard University Choir, Peabody Community Chorus and Occasional Symphony, sensitively conducted by Joshua Hong.
It was a great idea to have Conley recite her poems, but not so great an idea to have her do so two at a time, in between movements of the cantata. The shifting from speech to music and back again inevitably caused the tension in "Rise" to fall.