Meditations on Music: Hailstork

There is no sugar-coating the fact that it took all of the 144 years the Conservatory has existed for an oratorio by an African American composer to be performed. But this past Friday, the Lawrence University Choirs and Symphony Orchestra brought to the stage two works by Dr. Adolphus Hailstork—“I Will Lift Up Mine Eyes” and “Done Made My Vow”—and despite the Conservatory not having much diversity, the concert was one of respect and optimism. Performing the works made the artists dig deep into their significance. It spurred productive discussion and, as conductor Dr. Stephen Sieck said in his program notes, interrogation. There have not been many concerts on campus that have raised as much discussion as this, and for this reason alone, although there are many others, this performance and its preparation should be the start of something much bigger.

An oratorio is a large ensemble work for choir, orchestra and soloists; it is a tradition for the Conservatory to perform an oratorio in the spring. The past few years have featured works by Bach, Haydn and Handel. While highly regarded in the canon, these compositions have lost nearly all of their footing and significance in today’s world. Musically, things have progressed. Socially, things have progressed. Yet until this year, the Conservatory has stayed in this standstill in regard to oratorios.

Hailstork’s music looked forward in many ways and to see how that impacted the musicians and attendees even before a note was sounded had me tearing up and moved to the core. In the past, when asking friends if I should go to an orchestra, choir, wind ensemble, etc. concert, I was often responded to with a, “No, it’s going to be bad/boring/etc.” Still wanting to support my friends, I would sometimes go and usually have had to agree with them. But before this year’s major work, I scrolled through Facebook to see countless posts about the concert—often long and thoughtful—of friends excitedly telling me to go, hearing talk about it frequently around the Conservatory and campus from people I did not know and just a general enthusiasm for it.

When arriving at Memorial Chapel, the place was warmer than usual, a full house of students, faculty and staff, families and Appletonians. There are so many people that want to play new music from a wide variety of cultural and racial perspectives and so many people that want to hear it, and why that is not often embraced baffles me. Everything about this experience, even before the music began, is a lesson in what music should be played and how it should be played. We should program and perform more new music from diverse perspectives. Even if “respecting traditions” and drawing from the canon seems like the thing to do, we should program and perform more new music that celebrates voices that have been silenced, but still exist, and should be heard.

Everything was moving and enjoyable to listen to. These are qualities I have rarely felt at non-improv or jazz concerts. While I may have experienced these feelings a few times, the feeling was never as intense as it was at Hailstork. The pieces had so much context and significance in today’s world—musically and socially. That makes too much sense for concerts like this not to happen much more often.

But of course, saying it was good is not nearly enough. The music had such a powerful complexity and organic nature, and despite it being living and breathing, it also maintained an unpredictable and exciting quality. As soon as “I Will Lift Up Mine Eyes” began, I was hit with a joyous, celebratory conviction that was clearly genuine. Taken aback, I refrained from taking notes on this first movement, reveling in its purity and genuineness. The second movement was somber in its pulsing synth-like French horn, cool strings and the clashing and weaving interplay from the choir and vocal soloist senior Jamil Fuller. Fuller’s falsetto range was a ghost using every bit of energy and power, calling over and under the heavy choir, and it flowed well into the final movement’s feature of sixth-year vocalist Keira Jett. While she was also a soloist in the first movement, it was the transformation from her spirited voice to Fuller’s and then back to hers that created such a beautiful, abstract narrative.

“Done Made My Vow” was also an abstract narrative, but a stunning, immense tapestry as well. Stitching together elements of spoken word, traditional oratorio influences, history, excerpts from Obama’s “The Audacity of Hope,” songs used in the Civil Rights movement and now, psalms and so many other elements, Hailstork was a master of balance; it created art that was an immaculate sum of its parts. With effortlessness, the composition and its artists spun from a quiet doom to blazing hope and to so many other emotions that grew from each other in a linear and non-linear fashion. This work cannot be summed up in a paragraph and not even a few pages, so please listen to it, either through the webcast from this concert or another recording. I have not heard other recordings, but I loved Lawrence’s performance because of its unrelenting and passionate manifestation, all the artists building off each other in a way I have only seen in a large ensemble at this particular concert.

Performers, directors, audience members, everyone—I know there is so much you learned from programming Hailstork to bringing it to life, but do not let that mean it is the end. Continue on this path. Please.