The first sounds you hear in Hannibal Lokumbe’s Healing Tones are quiet strings and a shofar. In Judaism, the blowing of the ancient animal horn instrument can be interpreted as a call to action.
So, too, can Healing Tones itself. The piece, premiered Thursday night by the Philadelphia Orchestra in Verizon Hall, is a large-scale response to the work the Texas composer has done in Philadelphia in the last three years, visiting schools, prisons, and shelters, and gathering human evidence of healing.
- ‘Pittsburgh hit me really hard, like Charleston,’ so Hannibal Lokumbe put a shofar solo into his Philadelphia Orchestra finale
- In classical music: A-list singers, a ‘La boheme’ with Philly flavor, and Yannick at the Mann
- Philadelphia Orchestra’s 2019-20 season spotlights women, Placido Domingo — and the Academy of Music
But you need not have known any of this to have absorbed the message of Healing Tones, Hannibal’s last piece here as composer-in-residence.
Hannibal has a gift for synthesizing pain into a convincing call to optimism. He was already writing Healing Tones when October’s massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh occurred, and it became part of his piece. He wrote the shofar into the score, bringing in Audrey Glickman, the shofar blower who had been leading a service at Tree of Life that October morning, for these performances.
For all the real-life inspiration behind Healing Tones, it is largely unmoored from time and place. The piece carries in it something of Hannibal’s Cherokee ancestry (one of his great-grandmothers was Cherokee), but it comes across as an operatic parable. Three characters — the Everlasting, Eternal Mother, and the Shaman — carry the story, while the chorus creates a scrim of ancestral voices.
In form, it is not far from Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle, and the story seems like something out of a Maurice Maeterlinck drama.
The Shaman has seen too much of man’s dark side and wants to escape through death. The Everlasting grants his wish and allows the Shaman to enter a kind of paradise. The Shaman, though, is shown a vision of suffering in the world and sees that his peace can be found only in returning home and realizing his destiny as a healer.
Like Bartok, Hannibal is strong on atmosphere: strains of orchestral sunlight, smoky jazz, African drumming, and forest murmurs from the woodwinds happily commingle in the piece. Hannibal is a wonderful vocal writer. He conjures inventive sounds and textures from the chorus, the combined 100 or so strong and subtle voices of the Morgan State University Choir and Philadelphia Heritage Chorale.
Soprano Karen Slack as the Eternal Mother was love in sound in an aria about a vision of the New Being and a world “undivided by power, fear, and greed.” Mezzo-soprano Funmike Lagoke, the Everlasting, was rich and deeply emotional. Tenor Rodrick Dixon caught the pain and triumph of the Shaman’s evolution.
But as effective as the musical storytelling was, it was the more emotional messaging of Hannibal’s score I loved most — the pulsing optimism, the peace and reconciliation, the urging toward hope.
Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducted, and despite the fact that he stopped the orchestra in one section when something went awry and had to start over, this was a persuasive performance that promised to get only stronger.
The presence of such a singular piece provided Nézet-Séguin with a programming challenge: with what to pair it? He answered with the Sibelius Symphony No. 2, which looked like an odd choice on paper and continued to be so in practice. Still, it is one of the orchestra’s most frequently performed works historically, recorded multiple times by Ormandy, and here was a chance for the conductor to make his own imprint.
Nézet-Séguin’s vision of the first movement isn’t one of strategically paced unfolding, but of rushing forth. The second movement ended with an extra-angry edge, a bit of smart drama I liked. But Nézet-Séguin hears the last movement as more fluid than monumental, which had the effect of making it less dramatic rather than more.
It wasn’t Ormandy. But it also wasn’t quite a convincing alternative. If his predecessors are any guide, though, Nézet-Séguin will have another chance at it, and maybe more than one.