Even with centuries’ worth of knowledge at our fingertips, the lessons of history so easily fade. Consider Octavius Catto, a name you’ve likely never heard unless (a) you’re an expert on early civil rights leaders or the city of Philadelphia or (b) you were at Symphony Hall this past weekend to hear composer Uri Caine’s oratorio honoring Catto.
Catto, a Black man born in 1839, was a teacher, baseball player, and orator who shared stages with Frederick Douglass. With his fiancée Caroline Le Count, he fought against segregation on public transit in Philadelphia nearly a century before Rosa Parks famously refused to give up her seat in Montgomery, Ala. After the passage of the 15th Amendment, which guaranteed the right to vote to male American citizens regardless of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” he encouraged Black men in Philadelphia to vote Republican: the party of Lincoln, which tended to support civil rights more than the opposing Democrats. He was assassinated in daylight near his home by a white rioter on Election Day 1871, the second Election Day under which his right to vote was constitutionally protected.
A newspaper article published shortly after his death concluded that “he would doubtless have become a leader among his brethren” had he lived. His name faded into obscurity, but thanks to a dedicated group of advocates, Caine included, he is being remembered again.
His story is vividly told in “The Passion of Octavius Catto,” which the Boston Symphony Orchestra performed in the first weekend of this month’s festival, “Voices of Loss, Reckoning, and Hope,” which features music that engages with contemporary social issues. Caine, a native of Philadelphia and genre-spanning pianist, grew up steeped in the city’s jazz scene. He first heard Catto’s name from older Black members of the community. More recently, he read a 2010 biography of Catto that provided many of the details for the “Passion.”
The “Passion” did not try to transport its listeners back in time or bring Catto to life on the stage with any measure of verisimilitude. Caine selectively called on some music of Catto’s time to set the scene, but also injected references that modern audiences would understand — “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” “We Shall Overcome,” and a heaping spoonful of gospel. The seventh movement treated words from the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments with the same gravitas and pathos with which a hymn would treat Scripture.
Vocalist Barbara Walker, a dynamic singer and storyteller with a velvety rasp, delivered a roof-raising performance, and the Catto Chorus — assembled from several local ensembles for this concert — responded to her calls magnificently. Caine’s eponymous trio, featuring the composer on piano and synthesizer alongside bassist Mike Boone and drummer Clarence Penn, contributed punchy and free-flowing improvisations to the oratorio’s instrumental movements. Even conductor André Raphel was seen singing along at several points, never missing a beat.
The final movement strode forward: “The martyr rests, and we a million strong . . . ” Walker sang, with the choir answering, “backed by a million more!” The exchange faded into stillness. Not just a piece about the past, the “Passion” is a call to action, to carry the cause of justice forward.
The first half of Friday’s concert featured the BSO’s first complete traversal of William Grant Still’s blues-tinged Symphony No. 1, “Afro-American.” Early on, the orchestra sounded unsure of itself; its confidence built in time to show off wide dynamic contrasts in the swinging Scherzo, which is often performed as an excerpt. The majestic and unhurried finale, fittingly subtitled “Sincerity,” added a feeling of catharsis to what had come before.
On Sunday afternoon at GBH’s Calderwood Studio, tenor Lawrence Brownlee and pianist Kevin Miller also highlighted a lesser-known corner of American history with the debut of Brownlee’s “Rising,” a recital program of songs set to poems of the Harlem Renaissance.
Bundled into the experience, which was presented by Celebrity Series of Boston, was another invitation to learn more. Already acclaimed for heroic roles of the French and Italian repertoire on the opera stage, Brownlee is smartly applying his star power “to be out there as a vessel,” as he put it: to uplift music that might not otherwise be heard, and spread the names of composers on the verge of greater recognition.
“There’s a misconception that music written by African-American composers is only for African-Americans, and that’s not true,” the tenor said while introducing the concert’s second half, which was made up entirely of new music by Black composers commissioned for the “Rising” project. The first half, also powerful, featured music by Margaret Bonds, Jeremiah Evans, and Robert Lee Owens III.
Time flew by. Jasmine Barnes’s setting of Georgia Douglas Johnson’s “Peace” sounded like the best possible collision of Billie Holiday and Claude Debussy. The groove behind Brandon Spencer’s setting of Claude McKay’s reflective “I Know My Soul” wouldn’t have been out of place on Top 40 radio with a beat behind it. I sincerely hope this isn’t the last time I’ll hear Carlos Simon’s three Vocalises — by turns ethereal, reverent, and funky — which didn’t so much feel like songs as duets for piano and a melodic instrument. A ticket to the digital concert, available until March 13, is probably worth the price just for Brownlee’s ardent rendition of Shawn E. Okpebholo’s dreamy, sensual “Romance”; almost all the commissions are worthy of repeat performances by as many singers as will take them on, but “Romance” will be a tall order for anyone who doesn’t have Brownlee’s expressive nuance and extensive high range.
“You know I have a middle and low range, too!” the tenor joked after the third or fourth commission in a row that sent his voice into its stratosphere. But given the opportunity to write for Brownlee, who could blame the composers?
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
Symphony Hall. March 3. www.bso.org
LAWRENCE BROWNLEE, TENOR
GBH Calderwood Studio. March 5. Virtual concert available March 7-March 13. Presented by Celebrity Series of Boston. www.celebrityseries.org