Culture Vulture: Dessoff Choirs and Alice Coltrane, or how many black female harp players can you name?

May 24, 2017

5.21.17Malcolm J. Merriweather – remember that name. He’s going to be famous in the music world one day, and you can say you heard it here first. He’s currently the music director of the Dessoff Choirs, the distinguished group that has been performing choral works in New York City since 1924 (my boyfriend Andy has been singing with them since 2008). On Sunday they closed their season with a beautifully conceived, musically ambitious, philosophically inspiring concert at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church on Central Park West called “A New Amorous World,” which took on the theme of love as it is viewed all over the world not just as a personal human emotion but as a spiritual and political force.
The title of the program comes from the work that opened the concert, an eight-part 20-minute wackadoodle piece called “The New Amorous World” by a young composer named Lembit Beecher based on the writing of 18th century French utopian philosopher Charles Fourier. I knew nothing about Fourier until I read Beecher’s program note about him, and now I want to know all about him. In this piece he lays out his conception of the impending end of Civilization as we know it, to be replaced by what he calls Harmony, which will see “the establishment of perpetual peace, universal unity, the liberty of women.” The score mainly has the choir singing a cappella, lightly accompanied by two horns and a harp (all played by young women) – who does that??? And the text, mostly sung but sometimes spoken by individual singers, veers far beyond what you usually hear a choir singing, on the subject of love, work, and passionate attraction.

Sample passage: “Manias relating to love will be common in Harmony. Manias will be completely equal before the law in Harmony. People forget that love is the domain of unreason. The more unreasonable a thing is, the more closely it is associated with love. Some manias are spiritual; some manias are physical in harmony. How can people assume that God intended love to be no more than an agent of a tyrannical bond called marriage? How shameful it would be for God if he had created the most noble of passions only to yield the most contemptible result. How impertinent of man to impute such ineptness to God. Amorous heel scratching, hair plucking, fondness for lesbians, desire to eat spiders – all varieties of love.”

Did I mention Fourier’s concept of the Archibras, a sixteen-foot-long tail that men and women living on the sun will have in the time of Harmony? “It has a firm grip with retractable claws. It enables man to swim like a fish, dig in the ground, slide down a tree, grab onto rigging. It is infinitely useful!”

Imagine singing lines like that! The music is pretty tricky and difficult yet quite beautiful, and the Dessoff pulled it off spectacularly, which must have been gratifying to the composer, who was sitting just a few feet away from me.


And that was just the beginning of a program that moved through traditional Arabian muwashshah, Syrian, Turkish, Chinese and Japanese folk songs, Hebrew liturgy, Haitian and Sufi songs, and an amazing wordless piece called “Past Life Melodies” by Australian composer Sarah Hopkins performed by the United Nations International School Senior Chorus (conducted by Daniel Stroup), who also joined the Dessoff for two numbers, including the finale, the Navajo prayer “Now I walk in beauty” set to music by Gregg Smith.

The singers did a spectacular job with these contrasting styles and multiple languages. The acoustics were superb for largely unaccompanied (or lightly accompanied) singing. And besides his canny, knowledgeable sense of programming and fine-tuned conducting, Merriweather has a distinct flair for theatricality from the way he has the singers process to the stage area to the way he arranges soloists and small groups around the house to distribute the sound. He’s young (31), tall, handsome, gay, black, super-talented, and clearly going places. Here he is with Andy, after the concert.


I was amazed to see Ashley Jackson playing the harp (below) because I knew that right after the Dessoff concert I was running out to the Knockdown Center in Maspeth (a neighborhood in Queens I’d never heard of before) to see a concert paying tribute to Alice Coltrane, the most famous black female jazz harpist in the world — not that it’s a gigantic population, but two in one day!?!


Well, Alice Coltrane (above) died ten years ago, but for this occasion her parts were played by Brandee Younger, in a ten-piece band led by Coltrane’s son Ravi that also included Reggie Workman (erstwhile sideman for Ravi’s legendary father, John Coltrane) and the great pianist Geri Allen. The event, entitled “The Ecstatic World of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda,” was presented by the Red Bull Music Academy NYC and was inspired by an album of the same name recently released on Luaka Bop, the label formed by David Byrne (who showed up for the concert, bicycle helmet and all).


The event had two parts. For the first part, “The Sunset Set,” half of the Knockdown Center had been converted into a temporary ashram, to reproduce the Sai Anatam Ashram that Coltrane created in Santa Monica in 1975 for the study of the ancient Hindu philosophy of Vedanta. Central to Coltrane’s spiritual practice were Sunday communal ceremonies of singing and chanting the original gospel-tinged arrangements of Sanskrit chants that made up the entirety of her musical output for the last ten years of her life.


For the event on Sunday, audience members were handed cloth bags for their shoes and comfortable pillows for sitting on the floor, both saffron-colored, as well as songbooks for singing along with the Sai Anatam Singers, a group from the California ashram led by music director Surya Botofasina. I assumed that anyone who showed up for this event would be familiar with the tradition of kirtan and eager to join in, but noooooo, this was a respectful quiet crowd of Brooklyn hipsters who treated it as a concert and barely responded, which made it much less fun.


Then there was a break, during which the audience was served free tasty vegetarian samosas while the band set up for part two, “The Evening Set,” in which Ravi Coltrane’s ensemble played selections from his mother’s jazz compositions. I daresay there’s no Alice Coltrane fan who doesn’t consider her essential track to be “Journey in Satchidananda” – it’s her “Love Supreme,” her “Thunder Road,” her “Smooth Operator.” I never thought I would hear it performed live in my lifetime, but there it was, opening the set – an ecstatic stretched-out 25-minute version with three different horn players and a flautist filling in for Pharoah Sanders’ solos on the original recording. They worked through four or five other classic Alice Coltrane pieces as well as a completely improvised interlude featuring two dancers. I went home happy.

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