The Washington Chorus approached social impact themes through “Justice and Peace,” a three-part concert presented at the Kennedy Center.
Under the direction of Eugene Rogers, artistic director for the Washington Chorus, the audience heard works by Ralph Vaughan Williams, Damien Geter and Roshanne Etezady. The 150-member Washington Chorus teamed up with a 70-piece orchestra and soloists Karen Slack (soprano) and Kerry Wilkerson (baritone).
And while Rogers took over as the fifth artistic director in Spring 2020 at the onset of COVID-19, “Justice and Peace” marks his first live and in-person concert with full chorus and orchestra.
“This is a lot because [it] includes two premieres,” said Rogers, who recently conducted a combined chorus for the world premiere of “Knee on the Neck” from a requiem honoring George Floyd.
“Justice and Peace” opens with Roshanne Etezady’s “Become the Sky,” the first of two premieres in the concert. The song, composed for choir, brass and percussion, tickles the auditory system with a celebratory fanfare as requested by Rogers.
“The song celebrates us not being held captive and allows us to celebrate – like walking outside and smelling spring and flowers,” Rogers said, reflecting on the challenges Americans have faced during the pandemic.
Geter’s first symphony, “Justice Symphony,” represents the second part of “Justice and Peace.” His symphony included new arrangements for traditional African-American music of faith set in a classical context. Geter recently presented the east coast premiere of his “African American Requiem” at the Kennedy Center.
“This symphony celebrates the music of the civil rights era,” Rogers said. “The repertoire is music all Americans should know. However, maybe they haven’t because we know our systems have not always promoted all American music.”
Section three, “Dona Nobis Pacem,” counts as Ralph Vaughan Williams’ plea for peace and hope for the future. The composer’s sensibilities came from picking up bodies and pieces of bodies as an ambulance driver during World War I. With a second war on the horizon in the 1930s, he created “Dona Nobis Pacem” as a plea against war.
“He had seen what war had done in his life,” Rogers said. “When I programmed this piece, I had no idea there would be a war in Ukraine.”
Rogers entered his Washington Chorus artistic director role with an intentional eye on inclusiveness. For “Justice and Peace,” he has assembled the talents of an African-American soloist and composer and a female Persian American composer.
Rogers said while white men have dominated classical music, things appear to be improving. However, he remains committed to creating an environment where other artists – Black, indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) – can similarly thrive.
“My vision from the Washington Chorus is to create the ‘mahogany initiative’ to focus on celebrating BIPOC composers, artists and poet collaborators, Rogers said. “One of my goals is to broaden who is seen on that stage, to broaden the music you hear on that stage in a classical idiom.”