The Dessoff Choirs celebrates the late African American composer Margaret Bonds, at the Church of the Heavenly Rest, in New York City, on April 28 at 7:30 p.m., a pre-concert talk begins at 6:45 p.m.
Born in Chicago, Margaret Bonds (1913-1972) was a pianist, a composer, an arranger, and a music teacher. She was one of the first Black composers and performers to gain popular recognition in the U.S., being the first Black soloist to perform with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. She was also a strong fighter for civil rights, and is remembered for her arrangements of African American spirituals.
The Dessoff Choirs concert features the New York premieres of the orchestral versions of two neglected Bonds cantatas: Credo inspired by a W.E.B. Du Bois essay, and Simon Bore the Cross (edition by Malcolm J. Merriweather), a collaboration with Langston Hughes.
Conducted by Dessoff’s Music Director Malcolm J. Merriweather, The Dessoff Choirs is joined by a full orchestra, Grammy Award-winning bass-baritone Dashon Burton, renowned soprano soloist Janinah Burnett (Phantom of the Opera/The Metropolitan Opera), and the Carter Legacy Singers (Morgan State University Choir’s alumni ensemble).
As Merriweather explains, the choirs are dedicated to performing rarely heard choral masterpieces.
“We are thrilled to cast a spotlight on Margaret Bonds’s neglected, but important contribution to the American music canon. She is a forgotten voice for civil rights that must be remembered, appreciated, and cherished. It seems the time has come for Bonds’s voice to be heard.”
Founded in 1924, The Dessoff Choirs, one of the leading choruses in New York City, is an independent chorus with an established reputation for pioneering performances of choral works from the Renaissance era through the 21st century.
Beginning the concert program is Dr. Rollo Dilworth’s edition of Credo (1965-67), a seven-movement choral symphony for full orchestra, chorus and soloists. Portions of the work were performed in 1972, four weeks after Bond’s untimely death.
During the 1960’s, Bonds focused her attention on the writings of civil rights activist and sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois. Du Bois’s essay Credo (1904) so inspired Bonds that she immediately began to compose her cantata on its text. So begins the prose: “I believe in God who made of one blood all races that dwell.” The prose is dedicated to the memories of the poet Langston Hughes and singer-actress Abbie Mitchell.
Credo shares the program with Bonds’s Easter cantata, Simon Bore the Cross (edition by Malcolm J. Merriweather), with text by Langston Hughes, based on the spiritual “He Never Said a Mumblin’ Word.”
Hughes and Bonds’ first met in 1936, and thereafter a lifelong friendship and frequent collaborations ensued. They worked together on numerous projects to build pride and excitement in African American heritage, community, and identity.
In much of their work, they place Black characters at the center of the drama as in Simon Bore the Cross based on an African biblical motif: Simon of Cyrene, from North Africa, figures in the Gnostic Gospels as a man who carried Jesus’s cross on the way to Calvary. Simon Bore the Cross was previously thought to be lost until a complete piano-vocal score was found at a book fair in a dumpster, waiting to be thrown out.
The April 28th concert performance continues The Dessoff Choirs ongoing exploration of Bonds’s work. In 2019, they released The Ballad of the Brown King (ArkivMusic/Avie) to much acclaim. WQXR Radio called it one the “Best Classical Recordings of the year”:
“Nearly 60 years after its premiere, conductor Malcolm J. Merriweather and the phenomenal New York-based Dessoff Choirs have at last provided a way to experience Margaret Bonds’ genius cantata, The Ballad of the Brown King.”