“That title has to be from a spiritual, right?” Such was one of my first thoughts upon learning about “Crossing the Deep,” the final concert of the Handel and Haydn Society’s 2022-23 season. The program promised a juxtaposition of Handel’s “Chandos Anthems” and Black American spirituals. Sacred musical traditions are flush with water imagery, and spirituals especially so: “my home is over Jordan,” “God’s gonna trouble the water,” “Jordan River is deep and wide,” etc. I’m likely not the only one who initially assumed that “Crossing the Deep” was an explicit reference to a song. However, upon Googling the phrase, most of the results had something to do with this concert and the inspiration behind it. So, possibly not the title of a spiritual, but definitely a poetic and memorable turn of phrase with multiple layers of meaning, much like the concert itself.
All at once, the “deep” evokes the stylistic divide between Handel’s florid Anglican anthems and the orally transmitted spirituals; the River Jordan; the Atlantic Ocean across which so many enslaved Africans were forcibly transported; the intangible border between life and death; the tangible borders between bondage and freedom. Rather than sit back and relax, “Crossing the Deep” asked listeners to sit back and reflect.
“Crossing the Deep,” which was officially described as an “immersive choral drama,” is a co-creation of H+H resident choral conductor Anthony Trecek-King and programming consultant and countertenor Reginald Mobley. In their introductory notes in the program book, they straightforwardly explained the initial inspiration behind the concert; H+H was exploring the possibility that Handel, one of the bedrocks of its repertoire, had held investments in trans-Atlantic trading companies that participated in and profited from the sale of enslaved Africans.
Various scholars are still attempting to uncover and analyze Handel’s proximity to the slave trade, with all the disagreements one might expect from ongoing academic debates. The narrative of “Crossing the Deep” sidesteps that minefield, as Trecek-King, Mobley, and spoken word artist Regie Gibson chose not to speculate about Handel’s personal opinions on slavery. Instead, they held up the concert’s narrative as a mirror, through which they hoped modern audiences might ask themselves how they might also be profiting from unseen or unacknowledged injustices. For anyone who questioned why spirituals were on an early music program, Mobley had a direct answer in the post-concert talkback: “spirituals are early music.” Hard to argue with that.
The acoustics in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library were far from ideal, but the space put both audience and singers in striking proximity to the topically prescient Atlantic Ocean. The Handel and Haydn Society Chorus performed in a small, mobile configuration that allowed the ensemble to migrate between sides of the stage. The program volleyed back and forth between spirituals and selections from Handel’s “Chandos Anthems,” which the composer wrote while under the patronage of James Brydges, who was made Duke of Chandos during Handel’s employment. Poems by Gibson, narrated in turn by the poet and singers from the ensemble, provided a framing story in which an anonymous, aristocratic 18th-century woman begins to question the sources of her wealth.
The Handel selections, accompanied by a pocket-size chamber orchestra, were characteristically vibrant, which was all the more haunting in the concert’s context. Trecek-King intentionally selected less-well-known spirituals, and many of their lyrics echoed the words in the anthems, which were drawn from Old Testament psalms and Anglican prayers. Most of those spirituals were performed in original arrangements by Trecek-King, who was for some reason not credited in the printed program; neither was R. Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943), who was behind the peppy glee-club arrangement of “Let us cheer the weary traveler,” nor Stephen Feigenbaum, the composer behind the ornate program-closing arrangement of “Amazing Grace,” an Anglican hymn that took on its own life as a spiritual.
At the talkback session, the conductor shared that he’d fought the impulse to “over-compose,” and it’s fair to say he won. Individual ornaments flashed on top of the music’s unified texture, like eddies in a powerful river. The three soloists featured in the spirituals — Mobley, soprano Brianna J. Robinson,, and tenor Wayne Ashley — delivered phenomenal performances; Robinson’s slow-burning “When I’m Dead” and the soaring, wheeling descant Mobley overlaid on “Building Me a Home” will be especially hard to forget. If anything can be called overdone about “Crossing the Deep,” it’s the ocean sound effects behind some of the narrated poems. I hope they trim those before the next performances, because there should be next performances and then some.
HANDEL AND HAYDN SOCIETY
At John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum June 1. Repeats June 4. 617-262-1815, handelandhaydn.org