"Let My People Go": Oratorio Society of Minnesota remembers the Underground Railroad

by Sheila Regan, Special to MPR
May 5, 2014

ST. PAUL, Minn. — The Oratorio Society of Minnesota take their audience on a journey through the Underground Railroad this weekend with a concert-length oratorio by composer Donald McCullough that draws from African-American spiritual traditions. Narrated by actors T. Mychael Rambo and Aimee K. Bryant, Let My People Go! A Spiritual Journey Along the Underground Railroad features four classically-trained African-American soloists: Elisabeth Stevens, Yolanda Williams, Tesfa Wondemagegnehu, and G. Philip Shoultz, who join the 75-voice Oratorio Society Chorus.

Matthew Mehaffey, artistic director of the Oratorio Society, says that while the company has done individual African-American spiritual arrangements in the past, this will be the first time they devote an entire concert to the genre, which includes a mix of styles including a cappella, glee-club-tradition arrangements, multi-harmony pieces, and songs in a swing or jazz style. "It's sort of an eclectic mix," he said.

Mehaffey said that he attended the premiere of Let My People Go! ten years ago, and finally feels that he has the choir that could do it. Plus, Mehaffey said the work offered a good contrast when looking at the Oratorio Society's season this year and seasons prior. Earlier this year, they presented Annelies, based on the diary of Anne Frank, so Mehaffey said he wanted to do something more uplifting.

In the piece, actors T. Mychael Rambo and Aimee K. Bryant narrate the story of the Underground Railroad, at times enacting scenes while they are underscored by the music. Meanwhile, the soloists — Elisabeth Stevens, Yolanda Williams, Tesfa Wondemagegnehu (producer of Classical MPR's choral stream), and G. Philip Shoultz — sing with the chorus.

According to Mehaffey, the four soloists are all classically-trained singers who have performed extensively. "The parts are quite difficult and vocally demanding," he said. The music requires they have classical chops, but that they are also versed in the gospel music tradition, which is often not notated.

"The piece mixes between those two," Mehaffey said. "You need to have classically-trained African-American singers who can tackle the intricacies of the printed score, but with the ear and the spirit to be able to improvise." All of the soloists, he said, have "rich, expressive voices but understand at the core of their being this type of music."

Let My People Go! A Spiritual Journey Along the Underground Railroad, performed by the Oratorio Society, takes place Saturday, May 10 at 7:30 p.m. at Hamline United Methodist Church in St. Paul. Tickets and more information are available at oratorio.org.

Sheila Regan is a Minneapolis-based writer. She writes frequently for the Twin Cities Daily Planet and City Pages, among other publications.

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