Excerpt from The Columbus Dispatch By Peter Tonguette
The Columbus Symphony is capable of transporting audiences through the beauty of its playing. Sometimes, however, the symphony has more on its mind than mere musical notes.
Such was the case when the symphony presented its “American Festival” Friday night in the Ohio Theatre. In a program dedicated to music by American composers, the symphony performed Paul Moravec’s “Sanctuary Road,” an oratorio that takes as its subject the Underground Railroad.
Performed for just the second time since its 2018 debut in Carnegie Hall in New York, the oratorio demands an overwhelming number of forces — in addition to the symphony, the Columbus Symphony Chorus and five vocal soloists were featured — to enunciate the experiences of slaves seeking freedom.
The text has its roots in narratives assembled by Underground Railroad conductor William Still, whose own voice was embodied — with equal parts sensitivity and command — by the outstanding bass-baritone Dashon Burton.
Burton, one of several vocalists who premiered the piece in New York, implored the audience to give their full attention to the recollections of the Underground Railroad’s travelers. “Write it down / Every word they say / Every word, every detail,” he sang.
To complement the text was the sweet simplicity of the music — sometimes stark, but often hauntingly memorable. Music Director Rossen Milanov led the symphony through the peaks and valleys of the score, including a clamorous, orchestra-only passage meant to represent the Civil War.
Unmissable, though, was the chorus, whose voices were at times volcanic; in the finale, the singers — solo and collective — attained a kind of euphoria.
An equally rare treat followed “Sanctuary Road”: Burton, Mitchell and the chorus returned to the stage to perform a selection of songs from George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess.”
“Porgy and Bess” was perhaps the most audience-pleasing portion of the evening, but legacies are made with demanding, challenging works like “Sanctuary Road” — and Milanov, well into his tenure running the symphony, added to his in bringing this brilliant work to central Ohio audiences. Don’t miss it.