Grammy Nomination for Oratorio of Underground Railroad Stories
By BETH HARPAZ
Two faculty members from the Brooklyn College Conservatory of Music have been honored with a Grammy nomination for their performance in Sanctuary Road, an oratorio based on stories from a 19th century book about the Underground Railroad.
Professor Malcolm Merriweather and Laquita Mitchell, an adjunct at the conservatory, were among five soloists nominated for a Grammy in the category of best choral performance, along with the Oratorio Society of New York Chorus and Orchestra and conductor Kent Tritle.
Oratorios are epic musical narratives performed by vocalists and an orchestra, but typically without costumes or scenery.
Sanctuary Road, written by composer Paul Moravec and librettist Mark Campbell, is based on William Still’s astounding 1872 memoir, The Underground Railroad.
Still, an African American abolitionist who lived in Philadelphia, was considered the father of the Underground Railroad. He assisted some 800 enslaved individuals in their efforts to flee slavery, keeping careful records of each person’s story. Still used those accounts to write the book, which chronicled the experiences of hundreds of people who fled bondage and made their way north to free states and Canada in the decades before the Civil War. The book was subtitled: “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.”
Mitchell has performed with the Los Angeles Opera, Houston Grand Opera, Washington National Opera, and the New York Philharmonic. She also portrays Bess in a PBS broadcast of Porgy and Bess with the San Francisco Opera, available on DVD.
Merriweather has widely performed as a baritone soloist and has also conducted in settings ranging from Carnegie Hall to the Vatican.
Sanctuary Road’s music and arrangements are thrilling, poignant and evocative, veering from terrifying chase scenes with slave owners offering rewards for runaways to heart-rending, soaring moments in which the fugitives are offered help and succor. The oratorio premiered at Carnegie Hall. BroadwayWorld lauded the performance for its “riveting, pulsating wall of sound and stellar soloists.”
This year’s Grammy awards event is scheduled for March 14, 2021.