New Morning for the World
a concert by the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, Joseph Schwantner, with speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. performed by Omar Sangare; The Williams Symphonic Winds conducted by Stephen Dennis Bodner; Filmed live by Berta Jottar [link1/link2], Sunday, February 3, 2008, produced by Sandra Burton and Stalwart Originality.
When Americans celebrate their more significant secular holidays with art, they notoriously reach for hackneyed expressions which are at best well-intentioned and at worst, totally empty. Williams College, however, produced a notable exception to this in New Morning for The World, a concert piece for winds, percussion, and piano, with recitation, by the distinguished American composer Joseph Schwantner. Regrettably I missed the performance, but I recently came upon a video of the event, filmed by the Mexican video artist and activist Berta Jottar, who is a member of the Williams faculty, along with Omar Sangare, who recited the texts by Martin Luther King, Jr. to the accompaniment of Schwantner’s music. The music and the selection from Dr. King’s speeches was work of a high order, powerful in its effect, as was Dr. Sangare’s recitation and the performance of the Williams Symphonic Winds under their director, Stephen Dennis Bodner, who has been responsible for a series of ambitious, original programs over this academic year and before.
Berta Jottar’s film went far beyond a mere record of the event, providing a vivid sense of what it was like to be there through two irregular quadrilateral windows at either side of the screen, one showing an almost frontal view of the stage, and the other shot with a wide-angle lens off to one side. Mr. Sangare, filmed frontally across his lectern, appeared in a narrow rectangular field at the upper left, which faded in when he spoke and faded out when he was silent and the orchestra dominated.
The music began with a ominous repeated figures which signaled an awakening. After some introductory bars Mr. Sangare began to recite the excerpts for Dr. King’s speeches, “When people get tired…” over this harsh fanfare. A more reflective, hymn-like section entered about a third of the way through the piece. It was followed by a return to the initial fanfare-like music, this time in a more hopeful mood. This has its own slow section, which leads up to a powerful vision of the future: “When the history books are written in future generations…”
The texts were brief and made their point directly. Their rhythm over the music and the rhythm of their entrances and cadences is as carefully worked out, as if they were sung. Mr. Sangare, standing stock still at his lectern and grave in demeanor, fully realized Schwantner’s intent, maintaining a powerfully controlled pace, both in his spoken passages and in his pauses. English is not Sangare’s first language, and his musical Polish accent gave the words of the Georgia minister a universal quality, inflecting the noble sentences with great subtlety. He accompanied his recitation with restrained movements of his head and controlled but eloquent facial expressions. Only at the end, did he raise his hand in an overt gesture, opening the palm to the audience, then closing his fingers gradually into a fist, which reached a moment of tension, and then sank gently out of view. This was splendid work and very moving, as it was recited over Schwantner’s music.
It is fortunate that Dr. Jottar made this film of this important and powerful event, in which all the elements and all the participants worked on the very highest level, and I hope it receives wider circulation.