Alicia Hall Moran’s residency this week at New England Conservatory won’t be the first time the composer, arranger, actress, and classically trained mezzo-soprano has been to Boston. She can recall a sixth-grade class trip to the city, but in more recent years, she has performed in and near Boston in an extraordinary variety of contexts.
Maybe you caught her performing her “Motown Project” at the Regattabar in early 2011, where she sang operatic arrangements of familiar hits by the likes of Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye. Or maybe later that year you saw her in “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess” at American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, where she was a cast member and Audra McDonald’s understudy in the role of Bess, or doing likewise on Broadway when the show moved to New York for most of 2012. (She then took over as Bess for the subsequent 20-city US tour.) In 2013, she sang spirituals arranged by the pioneering black classical tenor Roland Hayes (namesake of the music school in Roxbury) during a residency at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.
Earlier this year, Hall Moran performed an original multimedia work at Mass MoCA in North Adams, backed by the free-jazz trio Harriet Tubman and saxophonist Maria Grand. Her piece was inspired by the “Battle of the Carmens” from the 1988 Winter Olympics, in which figure skaters Katarina Witt and Debi Thomas coincidentally competed to the same music from the renowned Bizet opera. Hall Moran had skated competitively as a teenager, and “Carmen” had been the first opera her parents had taken her to see in New York; the Mass
MoCA show was the latest iteration of her mining those twin obsessions from her youth.
Thursday’s performance at NEC’s new Eben Jordan Ensemble Room will mark Hall Moran’s first Boston appearance featuring her own compositions. Tapping her for the honor was someone who knows her music intimately, husband and NEC faculty member Jason Moran, who gave similar treatment in past years to his late mentors Jaki Byard and Andrew Hill.
“Alicia composes from a very sincere place by attaching so much depth to every syllable, every chord, every melody,” he explains in an e-mail. “She has an uncanny way of pulling it all together, which is combined with a tremendous voice. Nothing about Alicia is ‘everyday,’ much like the other composers we’ve focused on during my residencies: Andrew Hill or Jaki Byard.” That Moran has recorded three of her compositions for his own albums is further evidence that he ranks her music with theirs.
Speaking by phone, Hall Moran says she envisions the students performing six or seven songs at NEC, mostly drawn from her new album, “Here Today.” Among them, her original compositions “Not Today” and “Who Are You,” and her arrangements of “Feeling Good” (a song identified with Nina Simone), “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” (in which the Stevie Wonder tune gets mashed up with the “Habanera” aria from “Carmen”), and, from her previous album, “Heavy Blue,” a take on Duke Ellington’s “I Like the Sunrise.” They’ll be sung primarily by a handful of NEC voice students — “three women, I guess, and a man,” says Hall Moran — chosen to represent facets of Hall Moran’s own voice, backed by ensembles of student instrumentalists.
Hall Moran will also perform on some of the songs, but considers the chance to work with the student vocalists a special treat. “I’ll be able to really experience having ‘Signed, Sealed, Delivered’ being sung by a man, in a Stevie Wonder-inflected way, with Carmen’s ‘Habanera’ at the same time,” she says. “Two different people. I do it myself [on the recording], but with them there, they can really just overlap, nobody stops. It’s in that way, for me, this awesome experience I’m about to have: to watch these mirrors of my voice actually interacting with each other, real-time.”
The Morans, who met while studying at the Manhattan School of Music (Hall Moran had already completed a degree at Barnard), have their newest joint project coming up a year from now, on March 30, 2019, when they will perform “Two Wings: The Music of Black America in Migration” at Carnegie Hall.
The new work will explore the wide range of music created by black Americans as they migrated from the American South after the end of slavery. Among numerous other contributors will be filmmaker Ava DuVernay (whose films “Selma” and “13th” were scored by Jason Moran) and the legendary mezzo-soprano Hilda Harris (Hall Moran’s mentor at the Manhattan School).
But famous venues and collaborators, or achieving fame herself, are not what drive Hall Moran. Her focus is on making highly personal art, whether at Carnegie Hall or with the students at NEC.
“I never was raised to think that art has any market equivalent,” she says. “I just feel that some people find a way to reach millions, and some people find a way to read to their kid at bedtime. But when you see this kid who shot up this school, 17 people,” she says, referring to the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, “what’s more important? I dare anyone to tell me it’s more important to make music that manages to reach 3 million people than it is to sing the right lullaby to the right kid, and to be able to figure that out for them. You could save the world like that.”
The Music of Alicia Hall Moran
March 29 at 8 p.m. New England Conservatory, Eben Jordan Ensemble Room. Free.
A Conversation with Alicia Hall Moran
March 27 at 1 p.m. New England Conservatory, Burnes Hall. Free.Bill Beuttler can be reached at email@example.com.