Blessed, the second of four digital commissions by Opera Philadelphia for its streaming platform, reaches back to the Bible to comment on the current moment in time. Composer and pianist Courtney Bryan takes her title, and much of her text, from the Gospel of Matthew, refashioning the beatitudes as a statement on the uprisings that occurred throughout American cities in summer 2020. She also evokes the isolation of the pandemic and the roots of activism found in Black church culture. The result is a stirring exploration of Christian theology and present-day social engagement.
New Orleans, New York, and Philly
Bryan began formulating the piece through improvisation, and the resulting score limns familiar classical forms, jazz inflections, and the suggestion of spoken-word performance. Spare staccato notes on the piano give way to an impressionistic musical language, culminating in a shimmering, almost Straussian chromaticism. Soloists Janinah Burnett and Damian Norfleet create a distinct vocal landscape that balances singing and recitation, which Bryan’s accompaniment skillfully underscores. The 20-minute work was created remotely—Bryan recorded her tracks in New Orleans, Burnett and Norfleet in New York—and ably stitched together by Philadelphia-based sound designer Robert Kaplowitz.
“Blessed are you”
Burnett and Norfleet intone familiar scripture: “Blessed are you when people revile and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil falsely against you on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” The modern relevance of the verse needs no overstatement, and in the piece’s most stirring moments, Bryan largely lets the words speak for themselves. (A note on the screen directs the vocalists to “whisper with intensity,” which they do.) Bryan also intuits where music can make a more direct statement without words, as in a brief, tension-filled interlude juxtaposed with an image of waves lapping a sea wall.
A champion of the oppressed
The accompanying video, crafted by director Tiona Nekkia McClodden, complements the work’s themes. A collaborative Zoom session speaks to the pandemic’s loneliness and the persistence of creativity, as the artists forge ahead making new and vital work, even while social distancing. Bryan plays piano and organ at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, her home parish in New Orleans. Although no protest footage is included, McClodden and Bryan share the story of Frances Joseph-Gaudet (1861-1934), a Black woman who also worshipped at St. Luke’s. An advocate for prisoners’ rights and carceral reform at the turn of the last century, Joseph-Gaudet was canonized by the church in 2007.
I knew little of Joseph-Gaudet’s life before Blessed, and I wish Bryan had incorporated her story into the musical narrative, as well as the visual one. The common prayer in her honor certainly holds contemporary significance: “Merciful God, who raised up your servant Frances Joseph-Gaudet to be a champion of the oppressed: Grant that we, encouraged by her example, may advocate for all who are denied the fullness of life to which you have called all your children.”
But perhaps that could be the starting point of a future work. For that, we would be truly blessed.
Image description: A woman with light brown skin looks over a calm body of water under a soft, clear blue sky. Her back is to the camera and she wears beaded earrings and a red scarf wrapped around her head.
What, When, Where
Blessed. Courtney Bryan, composer and pianist. Janinah Burnett and Damian Norfleet, soloists. Directed by Tiona Nekkia McClodden. Opera Philadelphia. Streaming through May 31, 2021, on the Opera Philadelphia Channel.
Blessed is closed captioned.