Leaves of Bluegrass: American Music ~ American Poets is about big thoughts: expansive, exuberant, optimistic thoughts that often characterize American music and literature. It began with my interest in the work of Walt Whitman, in particular his evocative poem, Darest Thou Now, O Soul, and others from Leaves of Grass, the extraordinary collection that occupied Whitman for much of his life. In these poems Whitman trumpets the equality and interconnectivity of all that exists in the universe. He places himself (and the reader, vicariously) squarely in the center, with a sense of awe and wonderment, energized more by the unknown than the known.
This program took its final form last August, while America and the entire world bore witness to the appalling demonstrations and subsequent race riot in Charlottesville, Virginia. That powerful spectacle revealed a lingering cancer in the ties that bind our nation, and led me to broaden my thinking about what should be presented in our performance of American music and poetry.
Langston Hughes, America’s voice of the 1920s Harlem Renaissance, shares Whitman’s penchant for big thoughts, although more earthbound in scope and vision. With a confident, optimistic tone, Hughes challenged the status quo of institutional racism. Decades before Dr. Martin Luther King, Hughes dared to dream the unimaginable for his time – parity among all races in America’s law and social fabric. I Dream a World speaks to this imperative.
After Charlottesville I was left wondering, sometimes fearfully, where our nation is heading after more than 60 years of hard-fought civil rights legislation. Dina Soraya Gregory’s lyrics in Angels Breathing Out capture the feelings that we sometimes experience when we sense change is coming, but are uncertain if it is for the good of all.
As this “big-thoughts” theme developed, I discovered Mortals and Angels: A Bluegrass Te Deum, an innovative new work by composer Carol Barnett and librettist Marisha Chamberlain. It is a one-of-a-kind setting of the Latin Te Deum (“to God”), a hymn of praise from the Roman Catholic liturgy, but with provocative twists, such as the insertion of Protestant hymns, a bluegrass band accompaniment, and a literary theme that imagines a friendly competition between mortals and angels in their praise of God: whose is more worthy and authentic?
I hope you find the program thought provoking and our music making beautiful. Thank you for joining The Chester River Chorale on this musical journey.
Douglas D. Cox
- Thursday, April 12 at 7:30 p.m.
- Friday, April 13 at 7:30 p.m.
- Chestertown Baptist Church, 401 Morgnec Rd., Chestertown
- Tickets are $15. They can be purchased at the door (cash or check only, please). Children under 12 and students with ID are free.