On March 7, in the Great Hall at Cooper Union, historic bastion of progressive causes, MasterVoices paid tribute to immigrants and their descendants’ contributions to our nation’s music, in a melodic, political, and earnest program, fittingly entitled “Our America,” led and narrated by Artistic Director Ted Sperling.
There were two distinguished new works, commissioned by MasterVoices, and sung by soprano Mikaela Bennett, baritone Justin Austin, and the choristers. Randall Eng’s “Remain,” both chilling and stirring, takes as its text quotations from a Museum of Chinese in America pamphlet, instructing vulnerable individuals about what to do if approached by a United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agent, with immigrants’ legal rights strongly emphasized. Jerusalem-born Daniel Rein, pianist with the assisting chamber orchestra for most of the evening, presented his “3 Songs by e. e. cummings,” “i carry your heart with me,” a dulcet duet and chorus; purring “fourpaws,” for the soprano; and jazzily resounding “anyone lived in a pretty how town,” for the full company.
Sperling and MasterVoices revisited two past presentations, Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson’s “Knickerbocker Holiday,” with Bennett and Austin’s upbeat “How Can You Tell an American?” saluting the American spirit, with Weill’s signature sound, a classical and jazz blend, very much in evidence, and Victor Herbert and Glen MacDonough’s “Babes in Toyland,” with Bennett and the chorus’ lilting “Barney O’Flynn,” evoking a fictitious Irish boyfriend, while fending off the villain’s advances.
As a prelude to the latter, folk singer David M. Lutken, armed with guitar, banjo, harmonica, and more, sang and played John F. Poole’s “No Irish Need Apply,” in which the job hunter confronts the unlikely employer about his own immigrant background. Lutken also probed musical forerunners of “This Land Is Your Land,” Baptist hymn “When the World’s on Fire” and A.P. Carter and Family’s “Little Darlin’ Pal of Mine,” before inviting us to join him and MasterVoices in singing the familiar Woody Guthrie anthem. The chorus followed up with a mellifluous account of Aaron Copland’s arrangement of “At the River,” bringing it to a triumphant conclusion. Lutken, joined by Bennett, offered as well a poignant pairing of Benito Amador and Justin Alarcon’s “Los Braceros,” about Mexican migrant workers, and Guthrie’s “Deportees,” which some of them risked becoming.
Africans brought to America as slaves didn’t fit the standard definition of immigrants, but their musical contribution was acknowledged here with a lively a cappella “Gospel Train,” in Jack Halloran’s arrangement; moving a cappella pairing of “Been in de Storm,” sung by Austin, and “Wayfaring Strangers,” sung by Bennett, with humming and echoing chorus, as arranged by Craig Hella Johnson; and rollicking “Ain’t That Good News,” with the singers and orchestra, in Moses Hogan’s edition. We detoured to Haiti for MasterVoices’ propulsive a cappella “Tap-Tap,” urging ‘don’t miss the bus,’ in kreyòl, and to Catfish Row, for the chorus’ joyous “Oh, I Can’t Sit Down,” and a swaggering Austin’s irreverent Bible stories, in “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” by George and Ira Gershwin, from “Porgy and Bess.” Sperling pointed out that Sporting Life’s melody is derived from that of Hebrew blessings, sung before and after a Torah reading.
The uplifting final numbers were Bennett’s touching and beautiful “Take Care of This House,” from Leonard Bernstein and Alan J. Lerner’s “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue,” with Austin contributing to the reprise and, with the MasterVoices arrayed around the hall, delivering surround sound, “Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor,” Irving Berlin’s setting of Emma Lazarus’ words, from “Miss Liberty.” Are you listening, Trump?
MasterVoices next present Christoph Willibald Gluck’s “Orfeo ed Euridice,” featuring Anthony Roth Costanzo, paired with Matthew Aucoin’s “The Orphic Moment,” at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater, on May 6 and 7. Visit www.MasterVoices.org
for tickets and information.