"So did you hear God crying?"
"Not in ways I expected."
In post-concert conversations, it was clear that nothing unfolded predictably Friday at the Kimmel Center's world premiere of Hannibal Lokumbe's oratorio, starting with the implications of its title. Can You Hear God Crying?, with its texts about inhuman racial cruelty, was rarely morose and often celebrated life - with an exuberant manner and creative restlessness that thrust the ear into new (but not hugely unfamiliar) territory.
Like most composers, Lokumbe has tropes he returns to from one piece to the next, suggesting that there are only so many ways to write a grieving, lamenting choral passage. Elsewhere, Lokumbe was far ahead of his breakthrough 1990 African Portraits, less weighed down by the message of Dear Mrs. Parks (2009), and happily adept with the harmonic sophistication of One Heart Beating (1999).
Written for chorus, orchestra, jazz quintet, and soloists, Can You Hear God Crying? is cast in 10 "veils" or movements, telling the story of his great-great-grandfather Silas, who was sold into slavery in Liberia but escaped to build a life for himself in Texas. The sparely scored opening moments were dominated by the Afghan rubab, a string instrument that suggests a Japanese koto. The brass writing sounded dusky and slightly muted. Vocal writing was idiomatic, but in registers that drew tones from soprano Janice Chandler-Eteme and tenor Rodrick Dixon that were neither operatic nor vernacular but perfectly suited the music's emotional temperature. Their extended vocal duet had a sure sense of direction, though I happily never knew where it was headed.
The piece has its roof-raising moments, though Lokumbe writes crowd-pleasers with sincerity that circumvents vulgarity. His emotional responses are blissfully unclouded by conventions of grand opera, or usual major-vs.-minor key polarities. Musical juxtapositions that might seem to clash in fact coexisted. And Lokumbe's own trumpet solos inhabit many beyond-mere-notes techniques.
However, he wasn't always his best advocate. His ceaselessly ebullient stage presence stole focus from his own multitextured music and his high-caliber collaborators, such as the knockout gospel singer Paula Holloway, that would be the envy of many composers.
The Celebration Choir (combining five local organizations) sang with great accuracy and depth of tone, showing such conviction that music director Dirk Brossé (whose Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia was somewhere in there) seemed to be conducting a tornado, and with gestures invented for the occasion. The performance clearly posed formidable challenges, with great rewards. Brossé, for one, had a hug from Lokumbe that literally lifted him off his feet. Yet another first on the Kimmel stage?