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H+H Emancipation Proclamation concert centers on water, spirituals

Celina Colby
Celina Colby is an arts and travel reporter with a fondness for Russian novels.... VIEW BIO
H+H Emancipation Proclamation concert centers on water, spirituals
Conductor Anthony Trecek-King. PHOTO: GRETJEN HELENE

This year, the Handel and Haydn Society celebrates the 160th anniversary of their first Emancipation Proclamation Concert. In 1863, H+H members celebrated President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation freeing enslaved people with a stirring concert. It is now an annual tradition of music, storytelling and celebration to ring in the New Year.

This year’s free concert will take place Dec. 31 at 1 pm at the historic Trinity Church in Copley Square. Resident Conductor Anthony Trecek-King has designed the hour-long program, centered on the theme of water, in partnership with the Museum of African American History,

Poet and orator Regie Gibson speaks at a previous year’s concert. PHOTO: CHRIS PETRE-BAUMER

“The culture that was emancipated, that needed to be released from the bonds of slavery — that culture was essentially born on the water in the passage across the North Atlantic Ocean,” says Trecek-King. “Water continued to be a focal point throughout the period of enslavement.”

To highlight this theme and showcase lesser-known spirituals, the concert will feature “In This Lane,” “Deep River” and “I Want to Go Home” as well as works by A.G. Duncan, Mendelssohn, Handel, J.S. Bach, Evelyn Simpson-Curenton and Stacey V. Gibbs. As has become tradition, the performance will include a reading of passages from the proclamation by National Poetry Slam Champion Regie Gibson. Isis Whitney-Payne, a member of the Handel and Haydn Youth Choruses, also will perform a reading.

Trecek-King additionally wants to examine the kind of spirituals we’re used to hearing in this concert. “In the late 19th century … composers were attempting to create 19th-century European part songs out of the spiritual,” says Trecek-King. ”They’re phenomenal pieces of music, but there’s a big transition after 1875 into this.” The arrangements performed during the Emancipation Proclamation concert will be much more aligned with the textural choruses of original spirituals.

Performing spirituals along with compositions by Bach and other composers favored by H+H also illustrates that both genres are powerful and important examples of early music and should be celebrated equally. Heading into the New Year, the concert is an opportunity to reflect both on work that’s been done and what can still be accomplished. It is a joyous remembrance, a celebration of music history and a moment of contemporary reflection.

“It is a celebration, but it’s also a reflection on today’s society as well,” says Trecek-King. “We want you to leave looking at the world in which we live in currently and seeing other things that we could be doing currently.”

arts, emancipation proclamation, Handel and Haydn Society, music