Margaret Bonds: Credo – Simon Bore the Cross (World Premiere Recording)
Janinah Burnett (soprano), Dashon Burton (bass‑baritone), The Dessoff Choirs and Orchestra, Malcolm J. Merriweather (conductor)
Recording: Church of the Heavenly Rest, Manhattan, New York (April 30‑May 1, 2022) – 62’58
Avie Records AV2589 – Booklet in English
Two heart‑felt works for chorus and orchestra by American composer Margaret Bonds (1913‑1972) inspire and delight in a new recording featuring The Dessoff Choirs under the direction of Malcolm J. Merriweather. Credo, set to a text by W.E.B. Du Bois, is a moving affirmation of faith in seven movements. Simon Bore the Cross expresses in eight sections the final hours of Christ as captured in a text by Langston Hughes.
Margaret Bonds may not be a familiar name among many listeners to classical music, but that is certain to change as orchestras and choruses revisit the contributions of Black women composers. In recent years, the symphonies and other major works of Florence Price have entered the repertoire of many orchestras. It is not surprising that the equally talented Margaret Bonds was once Price’s student, and both artists associated with 20th century Black cultural icons such as Hughes.
The Dessoff Choirs and Orchestra live up to their reputation as one of New York City’s leading independent musical ensembles. Malcolm J. Merriweather, director of The Dessoff Choirs since 2016, provides stellar leadership, emphasizing the composer’s touching lyricism and warm, embracing harmonies.
In the second movement of the Credo section, dealing with belief in God, soprano soloist Janinah Burnett boldly affirms, “Especially do I believe in the Negro Race” with clarity and a finely modulated vibrato, ending on a high C‑Sharp with seemingly effortless grace. There is also a section which acknowledges the treachery of the Devil, with ominous drumbeats that melt into a chorus of sweet sounds in the fifth movement, “I believe in the Prince of Peace.”
Dashon Burton, bass‑baritone on three tracks of this album, sings “I believe in Liberty for all men”, with sincerity and conviction, each word clearly articulated and balanced with the heavenly accompaniment of the choir. The Credo ends with an affirmation of Patience, expressed in a burst of optimism and energy.
The second work, reminiscent of the Stations of the Cross, follows Jesus in his final hours, from Pontius Pilate’s handwashing to the trial and march to Calvary, the Crucifixion, and Postlude Resurrection. One can see how this text has been so beloved for two millennia, since it expresses the entire range of human emotions in a drama of staggering power. The mournful “Prelude” offered by orchestra and organ, with some lovely effects on the harp, is as affecting as any overture to the Holy Week story that I have heard. Merriweather brings out the hidden contrasts and ebb and flow of passion–sometimes Bach‑like in its intensity–inherent in each section, with stirring solos by Burnett and Burton. We are indeed fortunate to hear this glorious music in an album of the highest quality and look forward to hearing more of this no-longer-forgotten composer of the 20th century.