Two world premieres bring historical resonance to Hendricks Chapel

Brent Michael Davids, composer and Native American activist "Purchase of Manhattan" and "Whistling Vessels" 

Who: Brent Michael Davids and Jorge Villavicencio Grossmann

Where: Hendricks Chapel, Syracuse University

When: Sunday, November 10th

Review by Sarah Hope

Native American composer Brent Michael Davids’ new concert opera, Purchase of Manhattan, premiered Sunday at Hendricks Chapel at Syracuse University to an attentive and enthusiastic audience. The concert, “Ancient Voices, Contemporary Contexts,” was sponsored by the Society for New Music, S.U. Arts Engage and La Liga (Spanish Action League).

In the United States, through their formal education, children learn the history of the “purchase of Manhattan” by the Dutch settlers from the Lenape people. It is taught that this transaction occurred as an exchange of the land for $24 worth of beads. However, the Lenape people may not have been as involved in the supposed transaction as formal history decrees. In collaboration with Abenaki author and Syracuse alumnus Joseph Bruchac, Davids has written a musical work that sets the record straight.

Davids is a world-renowned composer of Mohican descent, based primarily in St. Paul, Minnesota. His career spans 37 years, and in 2006, he was named by the National Endowment for the Arts’ among the nation’s most celebrated choral composers in its project “American Masterpieces: Three Centuries of Artistic Genius,” along with other iconic American composers like Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Foster. He has composed works for orchestra, concert band, chorus, chamber ensembles, and dance, and received commissions from the Kronos Quartet, Joffrey Ballet, the National Symphony Orchestra, and Chanticleer. He also composes music for film.

Native peoples, such as the Lenape people and Davids’ Mohican ancestors, who lived on the land that the Dutch christened New Netherland – later New Amsterdam and finally New York under the English – do not believe in formal land ownership. The land, they believe, belongs to all people, and cannot be bought or sold. Therefore, it is suspect to assert that the Lenape people sold their land to the Dutch. Davids’ opera rewrites this historical moment with the goal of introducing diverse audiences to contemporary Lenape culture and their rich history.

The 40-minute opera is composed for oboe, English horn, clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon, horn, bass trombone, tuba, harp, strings, vibraphone, timpani, three soloists (dramatic soprano, lyric tenor, lyric baritone), SATB (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) chorus and American Indian singers. It is set in four acts. The first, “’Manhatta’ Island,” is set 10,000 years ago and depicts the origins of the native peoples of America. Hendricks Chapel, with its friendly acoustics, was a worthy setting for a rising, warm chorus whose resonance, combined with the soft, full soprano of Syracuse University music instructor Laura Enslin, painted a lovely picture of a sunny day in as-yet-uncolonized America.

The second act showcased the lyrical ability of both the two male singers as well as the native and SATB choruses. Baritone Steven Stull and tenor Jonathan Howell brought adept articulation and theatricality to a dense and didactic score, telling the story of “The Purchase” with strength and fervor. All the while, Enslin’s repeated intonation of “akhi” (a native greeting, also meaning “the earth”) added a fine brightness to a tense scenario.

The opera’s third act turns dark, expressing the “Aftermath” of the purchase, in which the Lenape lament the “terrible story of recompense for kindness” that has plagued their people.

The final act, titled “Wiping of Tears,” channels a traditional Lenape ceremony in which native peoples try to set aside (but not forget) the pain that they have suffered, in order to once again become human and move on.

Grammy-nominated conductor Sara Jobin led a synergistic ensemble, who appeared well rehearsed, but not to the detriment of the organic nature of Davids’ combination of both classical and native compositional traditions. Some moments in which the two styles met felt confusing and dissonant, but to the credit of the composer, this worked well to convey the conflict between the Lenape and their Dutch invaders.

Composer Davids was on stage throughout, playing the recurring “welcoming theme” on the Native American flute. The theme returns at crucial moments in the work, bringing attention back to the Lenape people and the struggles they faced during this time of mental and physical colonization. In the opera’s final scene, this theme and the notion of “friendship” combine in a resilient and benevolent conclusion.

“It is to say of the Native people, ‘we’re still here, we still welcome everyone’,” Davids said in his opening remarks.

The premiere of this work in Syracuse is significant, given the rich history of Native Americans living in and around Central New York. This area is the birthplace of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, a community of five Native American tribes who came together to make peace around the 15th Century, and whose peace treaty continues to this day.

Also premiered as part of the “Ancient Voices” program was a 14-minute chamber piece by Peruvian composer Jorge Villavicencio Grossmann, titled “Whistling Vessels.”

Grossman, a native of Lima, Peru, who considers himself “citizen of the world,” said that he was inspired by the beautiful sound of the vessels. He gave a pre-concert demonstration from the stage, but said that playing them along with a six-piece chamber ensemble was difficult, due to the softness of their timbre. The vessels were thus incorporated via electronic samples recorded by the composer himself, on instruments hand-constructed for Grossmann by an instrument-maker in Peru. Their eerie overtones rang through the speakers in Hendricks Chapel, creating a lovely soundscape for the acoustic instruments.

Two contemporary dancers from La Liga’s Latino Theater Youth Troupe (directed by Jose Miguel Hernandez) accompanied the performance. The cyclic push and pull of their movement mirrored the alternately resonant and dissonant nature of Grossmann’s composition.

The evening ended in an ovation from an audience of all ages. Though plans for a repeat Syracuse performance have not yet been announced, you can listen to Purchase of Manhattan below.