Sanctuary Road: Topical and Skillful, but Enduring?

Review by: David Hurwitz


Artistic Quality: 9

Sound Quality: 8

In Sanctuary Road, Paul Moravec together with librettist Mark Campbell have created a moving and topical oratorio based on William Still’s 1872 chronicle The Underground Railroad, which documents the often harrowing, real-life efforts of escaped slaves to reach freedom. The actual book ought to be required reading, and with one exception Mark Campbell has done a skillful job excerpting bits for musical setting, selecting meaningful phrases for repetition and emphasis. That one exception is the opening number, “Write,” representing Still himself, which uses the tiresome device of taking a word and running through every synonym in the English language. I can’t help but think it would have been better had Still and his work been introduced in a written preface (if necessary), allowing Moravec and Campbell to jump right into the story-telling.

The actual piece is not too long–about fifty minutes–and consists of a series of skillfully arranged vignettes: three “Run” sequences, three “Interviews” between Still and slaves he had helped to escape, and a series of more extended numbers assigned to the various soloists and the chorus. All of this is bracketed by the lengthy introduction, “Write,” for the full ensemble, and an extended finale. Moravec’s music is tonal, melodic, and falls gratefully on the ear. The vocal writing is effective, with everyone given good material to sing, and there’s plenty of variety among the work’s sixteen mostly brief sections. Most importantly, Moravec and Campbell treat the subject with the seriousness that it deserves without sounding maudlin, while the overriding, universal theme of freedom from oppression arises naturally from the specifics of the various stories being told.

The performance sounds like a very good one. Kent Tritle has trained an excellent chorus in the Oratorio Society of New York, and while the text doesn’t always come over as clearly as it might (a generic criticism of choral music, I know), the enthusiasm and dedication of the performance certainly does. The vocal soloists are all pretty terrific, and the full English libretto is included in the CD booklet (thank God!). Recorded live in Carnegie Hall, the engineering leaves little to be desired. You also get a twenty-minute discussion of the piece at the end, which I did not listen to, since I feel the work should speak for itself. This is, in short, a project and a realization of which everyone should be proud. Time will tell if Sanctuary Road will enter the repertoire of choral societies more generally. All I can say at this point is that its manifold qualities make it an excellent candidate.


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Reference Recording: None

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