The cast of "A Knee on the Neck" comes to the stage for a curtain call at Strathmore Hall in North Bethesda, Maryland on March 26. From left: Librettist Dr. Adolphus Hailstork, composer Dr. Herbert Martin, chorus master Eugene Rogers, mezzo-soprano J'Nai Bridges and the National Philharmonic Orchestra. (Courtesy of Elman Studio)
The cast of "A Knee on the Neck" comes to the stage for a curtain call at Strathmore Hall in North Bethesda, Maryland on March 26. From left: Librettist Dr. Adolphus Hailstork, composer Dr. Herbert Martin, chorus master Eugene Rogers, mezzo-soprano J'Nai Bridges and the National Philharmonic Orchestra. (Courtesy of Elman Studio)

"America's Requiem – A Knee on The Neck," a cantata honoring the spirit and sacrifice of George Floyd.

A world premiere masterpiece is in tribute to George Floyd almost two years since his murder.

On March 26 and 28, audiences were gifted with a world premiere masterpiece complete with a full orchestra, 135 voices and four soloists. The National Philharmonic Orchestra presented “A Knee on the Neck,” a cantata honoring the spirit and sacrifice of George Floyd. Music was composed by Adolphus Hailstork with poetry written by Herbert Martin, which became the libretto.

National Philharmonic Music Director and conductor Piotr Gajewski blended African percussion instruments within the orchestration. The Washington Chorus Artistic Director and chorus master Eugene Rogers merged voices from the National Philharmonic Chorale, the Washington Chorus and the Howard University Chorale, who gave us Floyd’s emotions as felt through Martin’s libretto.

The orchestra opened with a slow buildup that conveyed something was brewing like a bad storm. The libretto brings warnings about behavior that Black elders give to young Black boys. Those warnings in “A Knee on the Neck” were the actual words Martin heard at age 12 from his mother. That section of the cantata is titled “A Black Mother’s Commandment.” It is “the talk” from another era given to young Black boys.

“When you go downtown, dress yourself in politeness. If you get arrested, politeness will restrain the police, and it will protect you.”

Mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges is the mother’s voice imploring her child to be careful. Bridges’ voice soars as she repeats the warnings. The audience is forced to remember Floyd’s words and behavior as he tries to understand what Minneapolis police officers would do.

Stanzas project Black voices frustrated by years of hard work with little reward. Tenor Norman Shankle and baritone Kenneth Overton sing with strength that their struggles and setbacks will not take away earned freedom. We heard cautiousness and pain but determined voices. Then Floyd’s final breaths are captured in the lines, “Mama say come home, boy. My Lord come on home.”

In their 80s, Hailstork and Martin put their anger, peppered with life experiences, into a stirring cantata. Within a week of Floyd’s murder, Martin wrote a poem expressing his feelings and sent it to Hailstork. That poem, called a “Black Requiem,” became the libretto for “A Knee on the Neck.”

The second half of the evening was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor. Written as “a mass for the dead,” Mozart’s stirring requiem complemented this musical tribute to Floyd, offering rest for his soul and the many lost souls to senseless acts of violence. In addition to vocalists Bridges, Overton and Shankle, soprano Janai Brugger. Mozart’s libretto, printed in English, read like a meditative prayer comforting suffering souls that now can take a well-deserved rest. It was Brugger’s soothing soprano that eased our spirits.

“A Knee on the Neck” was initially developed for the two performances in the D.C. area. During the intermission, Hailstork shared with a small crowd gathered around him that his collaboration with Martin is going to New York in April or May. I am sure this exceptional music storytelling about George Floyd will make it to more cities beyond New York.

Hear Maestro Piotr Gajewski and Adolphus Hailstork discuss the creation of  “America’s Requiem – A Knee on the Neck.” https://youtu.be/vKqVQwQ4KGQ

Brenda Siler is an award-winning journalist and public relations strategist. Her communications career began in college as an advertising copywriter, a news reporter, public affairs producer/host and a...

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