When conductor Dr. Anthony Trecek-King learned that Handel had ties to the North Atlantic slave trade, the next step seemed obvious: He wanted to create an immersive concert experience that explored that history and that, above all else, asked H+H audiences to “think and feel.” Now, he’s bringing Crossing the Deep to Boston this June, and everyone’s invited to join us for the unforgettable journey in store. We sat down with Anthony to learn more about the project, the program, and what we can expect from his performances this spring.
Crossing the Deep will be fairly different from most H+H concerts. What inspired this project, and why did you feel that H+H was the right home for it?
What I love about H+H is that it prides itself on historical accuracy, digging in and understanding the history of the composers and their work. As part of that, H+H supports research that has created a thread of knowledge about Handel and his connection to the North Atlantic slave trade. So how do we as an organization respond to that? As I was listening in on the meeting where all this information was coming out, Reginald Mobley and I were texting each other in the background, and I said, “We’re a musical organization: Why not do a concert about it?”
From there, it just blossomed. We had to ask ourselves: How do we go about this? What’s the right way to treat this material with care? Ideally, we want to find an approach that gets our audiences to think and feel about the situation, but also reflect on our lives today. When you follow this thread, this journey—and it is a journey for me—it is always interesting to see what you discover if you allow yourself to be open.
How did you go about selecting the spirituals for this program?
In one sense, the choice of Handel’s music for this project is limited: We have a finite period of music that we’re considering. With the spirituals, because there are no dates, we have hundreds of years and thousands of pieces to choose from. I wanted to select several spirituals that the audience wouldn’t know, to expand what’s familiar—what people are aware of—so I went through all my collections of spirituals, searching for the right pieces.
Even once I found the spirituals I wanted to use, they needed to be arranged. So that’s a challenge: I’m trying to set them as if we were in the beginning of the 18th century, where the music feels less composed and more improvisational. One of the things we’re going to try with the H+H Chorus is to create some of the spiritual settings in rehearsal through improvisation, which is how it would have been done hundreds of years ago. I will sing the melody, they’ll respond, and we’ll just keep singing until we build the piece of music together.
What else do we know about how these spirituals would have been sung at the time, about the individuals who wrote them, and about how they came into the world?
Spirituals are all orally transmitted through repetition. Through that repetition, and people adding their own inflections, over time the piece becomes “perfected”—but it’s perfected by a community, not an individual. There are no composers of spirituals: It’s all through communal creation. The texture of this music is heterophonic, which means it would’ve been mostly unison, in octaves—but then someone adds their own inflections, and then maybe those are expanded into a second part. When you sing that part in octaves, all of a sudden, you have a four-part texture. So the texture can be quite complex, but it’s created organically as people hear how they might fit something new into the music.
That creation took place amid some of the most brutal conditions that have existed on the planet. This is the original protest music on this continent. It wasn’t necessarily performed in the traditional sense, because it had a utility. It could be a work song, a way to keep going throughout the day; it could be a sorrow song, something consoling; it could be a jubilee, a shout. No matter what, there would have been a reason for singing.
As the conductor of this concert experience, how is your preparation for the spirituals different from your method with Handel’s anthems?
There’s precision in both, but it is achieved differently. In Handel, it is often rhythmic precision, which can be thrilling. But in spirituals, it’s emotional precision. Singers should be emotionally and perhaps even physically connected with each other. In Handel, we have connection, but it is different: There’s a reverence. I don’t want to say you’re isolated, because you’re still singing in a group, but it’s a different affect. The usage was service of God.
To fully understand the spiritual, we have to build in time in rehearsals to talk about its history—and also to just talk about life! And that’s okay. There’s a lot of history and cultural context to bring to the forefront so the ensemble can perform this music in a way that feels authentic. On the other hand, because we sing a lot of Handel—it’s in the name!—we don’t have to spend as much time talking about the cultural context or the history. We will talk about the church at St. Lawrence where the Chandos Anthems were sung, so singers can imagine that space while performing and better express the musical and contextual juxtapositions built into the program, but we don’t need to sit down and talk about what it was like for Handel in England. All of our history books have already prepared us for that.
What was the biggest challenge you encountered when putting Crossing the Deep together?
For me, the biggest challenge is: How are Handel’s Chandos Anthems connected to spirituals? It was quite a struggle to weave the narrative. In my first attempt, one half of the program made a lot of sense, but the other didn’t. Then, I went back at it, and the other half made a lot of sense, but the first one didn’t! Then, I was thinking maybe we’d just use one Chandos Anthem and follow that narrative—but that doesn’t actually make sense. So I said, okay, wait, stop: There has to be a story that’s being told here. There has to be a path in which both characters can walk. Can I see that path in both sets of music? The answer took a while to uncover. But it was a fun challenge to work through! Sometimes having limitations can yield better results.
Why should people come to Crossing the Deep? What do you hope audiences will take away?
I think everyone should come to this concert. It will be different, and not just different for different’s sake. If you’re an H+H regular, I think it will be quite interesting from a musical perspective to see—in sharp relief—Handel’s music next to the music of other people, happening at the same time. But also, it’s going to cause people to think and feel. As an organization, we don’t have to provide answers, but we do want to raise questions. We’re not telling you what to do, or how to think, or how to feel. But we do think that part of the human condition is to think and feel. I hope people come and join us on this journey.
Join us for Crossing the Deep, June 1 + 4, to see Anthony in action! Click here to save your seat.