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Illuminating the past at Carnegie Hall

Alicia Hall Moran | 5/25/2011, 9:23 a.m.

This spring, Carnegie Hall is offering us knockout soloists and adventurous programming at a very friendly price.

Wednesday, May 11 features radiant soprano and Harlem School of the Arts alumna Indira Mahajan singing "August 4, 1964," a contemporary oratorio by Steven Stucky, with libretto by Harlem resident Gene Scheer.

The title comes from the day that the bodies of three civil rights workers--21-year-old Black Mississippian James Earl Chaney, and white New Yorkers Michael Schwerner, 24, and Andrew Goodman, just 20 years old--were discovered in a Mississippi dam. On the very same day, two U.S. naval skirmishes against North Vietnam launched the Vietnam War.

President Lyndon B. Johnson fielded both calls. The nation was in crisis.

It was "Freedom Summer" and the South was feverish. Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner were registering Black voters and had gone to the site of a church burning. They were surveilled and wrongfully imprisoned, then stalked and ambushed by Klansmen aided by law enforcement.

All three were shot and Chaney was beaten beyond recognition.

"This is a very disturbing and powerful piece. It is a bitter day in American history," says Mahajan. "It was the saddest day of my life," she sings in the words of Fannie Lee Chaney, James' mother, at the beginning of the piece.

"You cry just knowing how frightened he was before his death. The thought that your child was brutalized in such a way is painful beyond words," admits Mahajan. "Not to mention the pain of

waiting 41 years for justice."

Klu Klux Klan organizer Edgar Ray Killen was convicted at the age of 80 for engineering the crime.

"When I first learned the story as a college student, it was heartbreaking, but now as a mother, it resonates on a deeper level," said Mahajan, who has recently welcomed a baby girl into her life. "What do you do when your child is missing for 44 days?" she asked herself in preparation for the role of Chaney.

The challenge is to make music that illuminates the past. For the original commission, the Dallas Symphony assigned Stucky and Sheer to examine Johnson's presidency and incorporate Dallas' massive 200-person chorus and 100-person orchestra. This led to adding four characters/soloists: the mothers of Chaney and Goodman, President Lyndon B. Johnson and Robert S. McNamara, his secretary of defense.

"When I was a teenager, I thought Johnson was the Antichrist," confesses the composer. "I left him in the past--when I was 19 or 20," but Stuckey says he began to sympathize with him. "You can't write a good piece if you don't sympathize with your characters."

In a candid moment Stucky says, "My job is to give myself goosebumps and make myself cry."

Stuckey says it's the librettist's job to create language that wants to be sung. "It's a question of rhythm." Culling Johnson's presidential diary and mining archives for finds like Michael Werner's job application for CORE, Scheer's voice brings substance and reflection. His own experience as a songwriter gives him finesse. Favorite collaborators have included Wynton Marsalis and mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves.

Said Sheer, "305 people [with the conductor] on the Carnegie Hall stage performing beautiful music is an incredible experience that beats anything you can watch on TV." The brother of Chaney and the brother of Goodman will attend. It's a visionary idea.

Come experience the realization for yourself. An orchestra seat will cost you just $25! This sale on good seats is part of the initiative at Carnegie Hall called "Spring for Music," running May 6-14.

For more Black history, add the Albany Symphony's concert on Tuesday, May 10. The program features spirituals arranged by Donal Fox, Tania Leon and Daniel Bernard Roumain, with baritone soloist Nathan De'Shon Meyers.

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