Dessoff offers Duruflé and premieres of works by Vicente Lusitano
by April Thibeault for Vocal Area Network
Posted October 25, 2022

Hailed as "one of the great amateur choruses of our time" (New York Today) for its "full-bodied sound and suppleness" (The New York Times), The Dessoff Choirs begins its 2022-23 season with a long overdue exploration of the first published Black composer, Vicente Lusitano, paired with music by the last Impressionist composer, Maurice Duruflé. Conducted by Dessoff's Music Director Malcolm J. Merriweather, the 40-plus members of The Dessoff Choirs are joined by mezzo-soprano Lucia Bradford (New York City Opera) and organist David Enlow (Music Director of Park Avenue Synagogue).

The program begins with the North American premieres of motets and madrigals by the first known published Black composer, Vicente Lusitano (1520-1561). The Portuguese composer and theorist was of African descent, but the fact that he was Black has been almost entirely erased from memory. Although quite innovative, his compositions have remained obscure. In 1551, a book of his motets in five, six, and eight voices appeared.

"Despite the quality of his music and his place in history, Lusitano's works remain very rarely performed, if at all," explains Merriweather. "This neglect is another example of a persistent pattern in the history of classical music wherein Black composers encounter prejudice and disenfranchisement. The Dessoff Choirs is honored to play a small role in maximizing Lusitano's achievements and introducing his music to the classical canon's collective memory."

The evening proceeds with an unquestionable gem by the last Impressionist composer, Maurice Duruflé (1902-1986). A French artist living and teaching in Paris, he was considered the greatest organist of his day. Dedicated to the memory of his father, Duruflé's Requiem (1947) is by far the longest and most complex work he composed during his professional musical life. Recognized as a masterpiece for more than half a century, Duruflé undoubtedly made a spellbinding unique work of art. Based on Gregorian plainchant, the composer used the chants as the foundation, quoting the Mass of the Dead extensively throughout. Dessoff performs the reduced version for choir and organ (performed by David Enlow), with a solo performance by mezzo-soprano Lucia Bradford. "By pairing Duruflé's Requiem which represents the idea of peace, faith and hope, we hope audiences find Lusitano's music, legacy and the enduring silence enveloping them, even more poignant," says Merriweather.

Led by its intrepid music director Malcolm J. Merriweather, the choir is committed to social justice, equity and the choral art. This concert marks the latest in Dessoff's ongoing exploration of choral works by Black composers. Later this season, Dessoff will release Credo and Simon Bore the Cross (AVIE Records) by composer Margaret Bonds (1913-1972), a significant figure in the fight for civil rights. In 2019, Dessoff released the world premiere recording of Margaret Bonds: The Ballad of the Brown King & Selected Songs (AVIE Records). Dessoff performed The Ballad of the Brown King in December 2021 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The performance is scheduled for Saturday, November 5, 2022 at 4:00 PM at Union Theological Seminary, 3041 Broadway (at 121st Street). Tickets are $30 and up; seniors/students $20. To purchase, visit dessoff.org.

April Thibeault handles public relations for The Dessoff Choirs.