This will certainly be a spirited afternoon of engaging and thoughtful music.
The Eugene Concert Choir, with the Detroit, Michigan-based guest choir EXIGENCE sharing the stage, will touch on the haunting desperation of Black lives that end in tragedy — especially those of young men who are unarmed and killed by police or vigilantes — as well as issue a vigorous call to spiritual resolve to live in dignity with two lengthy pieces from Black composers.
Black Is Beautiful is the season finale for Eugene Concert Choir and Orchestra under the direction of Diane Retallack, joined by Eugene Rogers, the director of EXIGENCE. The two choirs will sing the works of Joel Thompson (Seven Last Words of the Unarmed and a choral arrangement of Glory) and the late Undine Smith Moore — whose seldom-heard masterpiece is Scenes From the Life of a Martyr, a 16-part oratorio about Martin Luther King — May 7 at the Hult Center.
Thompson, an Atlanta-based composer who will be on hand for the concert, composed Seven Last Words in 2014, recoiling with horror and grief to the murders being committed against unarmed Black men at the time, he told The New York Times in late 2020.
The piece met with mixed reaction initially, he noted in the interview, but after the 2020 murder of George Floyd, Seven Last Words gained traction in a YouTube video with the University of Michigan Men’s Glee Club, under the direction of Rogers.
“There was everything about me in there; there was no need to censor myself,” Thompson told the Times. “It was as honest as possible.
Seven Last Words mirrors the liturgical structure of Joseph Haydn’s The Seven Last Words of Christ. These are vignettes about the final moments, the last words, of Kenneth Chamberlin, Trayvon Martin, Amadou Diallo, Michael Brown, Oscar Grant, John Crawford and Eric Garner, set to different musical styles.
Both Seven Last Words and the choral arrangement of Glory will be conducted by Rogers, who in 1996 helped found EXIGENCE, a Black and Latinx choir whose mission is to uplift the works of people of color.
Retallack takes the podium for the second half of the Black Is Beautiful program for Scenes From the Life of a Martyr, a detailed look at the life of King in spoken word and song. The piece was finished in 1981 and received a favorable response. Yet Moore’s most well-known work, as well as other works by the extremely talented composer, somehow got lost after that strong start, rarely performed until recent years.
The piece is in four sections, covering different periods in King’s life. The first section explores his childhood with spirituals and text from novelist and poet Stephen Spender.
Part two covers King’s early manhood with text from Song of Solomon. Part three takes a look at King’s rise to fame, and the final section is simply titled “Evil times came upon him.”
Soloists for the performance are Elaine Alvarez, soprano, Rehanna Thelwell, mezzo, Demetrious Sampson, tenor, and Marques Jerrell Ruff, bass-narrator.
Eugene Concert Choir, with guest choir EXIGENCE, presents Black Is Beautiful 2:30 pm Sunday, May 7, at Hult Center’s Silva Concert Hall. Tickets are $25 to $52 and can be purchased at HultCenter.org or at EugeneConcertChoir.org. A recording of the Black Is Beautiful concert will be available for purchase and streaming in the summer of 2023.