A monumental cantata remembers George Floyd


“Mum. Mum. Mum. Mum. Mum. Mum. Mum.”
— Words spoken by George Floyd before his death at the hands of police officer Derek Chauvin

“Our suffering connects us.” —James Baldwin

The May 25, 2020 killing of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer was one of many incidents of black people being killed by police (or self-proclaimed people) that for a while seemed to happen every week. A video that emerged showing police officer Derek Chauvin as he knelt on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes appeared to be a tipping point that led to protests in many countries condemning police brutality and claiming than Black Lives Matter.

Mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges, music director Piotr Gajewski, tenor Norman Shankle, baritone Kenneth Overton, the National Philharmonic Orchestra & Chorale, and members of the Washington Chorus and Howard University Chorale performing “America’s Requiem – A Knee on The Neck”. ‘ Photo by Elman Studio.

America’s Requiem: Knee to Neck is a requiem cantata written in honor of George Floyd. It had its world premiere on March 26, 2022 at the Music Center in Strathmore by the National Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorale, in partnership with the Washington Chorus and Howard University Chorale, and was performed again at Capital One Center on March 28. , 2022.)

It’s a suitably monumental piece that responds to the insult, shock and brutality of the George Floyd incident while taking to heart and commenting on the 400-year resistance of people of African descent to being targeted by the state.

Mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges, Music Director Piotr Gajewski, and the National Philharmonic Orchestra perform “America’s Requiem – A Knee on The Neck.” Photo by Elman Studio.

Herbert Martin developed poems in response to the incident and later invited Adolphus Hailstork to compose the music.

There are four segments of the piece: “A Black Mother’s Commandment” (itself consisting of five poems), “Folk Song”, “A Gambler’s Rhyme”, and “Hymn”.

In “A Mother’s Commandment”, a son is instructed on how to govern his feelings and behavior when in public, unsupervised (and unprotected) by his mother:

When you go downtown
Dress politely
Let goodwill be the buttons
On your white shirt for
If you are arrested
Politeness will retain
The police and it’s alright
Protect yourself until I can get there.

“Folk Song” uses the witty familiar “There’s a Man Going Around the Names” to equate the song’s “man” with the impulse that motivated Officer Chauvin to assassinate with such confidence. The song also consoles George Floyd as he makes his transition to death.

At one point in this requiem, the soloists begin to sing the word Mom. (George Floyd shouted “Mama” seven times, and twice he shouted “Mama, I love you.”) Changing harmony and counterpoint, the soloists sang the word repeatedly and softly. While the rest of the piece was well constructed and well sung and commendable, this segment did something different: it provided a container for the trauma of the event so the audience could bear witness to what happened. without being re-traumatized in the process.

A requiem is a Christian tradition: a mass for the dead that recognizes, honors and asks for the rest of a deceased person. It is also a recognition and an opportunity to engage in mourning for those who are still alive. It can function as a renewal of community determination:

We will stay together
And sing a worthy song
‘Cause the road is rough and long
Our feet are tired
But our will is strong
Even as grief
Submerge our prayers
And we will win!
Our will is strengthened
He is determined
It’s strong
And U.S
Must win!

It felt good to have Mozart’s Requiem in D minor – with its cinema-popular Lacrimosa movement – ​​presented on the same bill. At times, performing pieces from the Western canon can feel like an academic exercise that separates the original or shared “spiritual” function of the work from the craft and status involved in creating or listening to it. Presenting the two requiems together allowed the audience to transfer the emotions felt in George Floyd’s requiem to Mozart’s work and thus allowed the experience of the spiritual dimensions of Mozart’s work to be more than one. intellectual exercise. We had been warmed up to be ready to hear and receive Mozart in a way we might not otherwise have been.

National Philharmonic Chorale and members of the Washington Chorus and Howard University Chorale performing “America’s Requiem – A Knee on The Neck”. Photo by Elman Studio.

The voices of the combined choirs have been mixed and balanced to achieve a sensual and pleasant sound. There were no tough spots where vocal sections or individual vocals competed against each other. And they responded smoothly and immediately to the driver, without being stiff or panicked. The sound of the choir was a reliable and comfortable holding place for the audience’s attention. Eugene Rogers was the choir director.

The soloists were all impressive and well received by the audience. Janai Brugger’s quicksilver soprano was exhilarating in the Mozart. J’Nai Bridges (mezzo-soprano), whom I had just seen in written in stone at the Kennedy Center, brought drama and gravity to the evening. Norman Shankle (tenor) and Kenneth Overton (baritone) were both energetic without being pompous.

Duration: approximately 2h30 with a 20 minute intermission

America’s Requiem: Knee to Neck premiered March 26, 2022 at the Music Center in Strathmore. It will be played again on March 28, 2022 at Capital One Hall, Tysons, VA. Tickets ($45 to $99) can be purchased in line.

The mobile program for America’s Requiem: A Knee on the Cou is online here.

COVID safety: National Philharmonic safety protocols are here.


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