Review | Kennedy Center’s ambitious ‘Cartography Project’ makes a strong showing with eight premieres

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But in his program notes, “Cartography” creator Marc Bamuthi Joseph — also the Kennedy Center’s vice president and artistic director of social impact — described an effort across the commissions (which are ongoing) to shift the conversation around these tragedies, to “focus on the intimacy and simplicity of the matter of Black dignity.”

“It is a basic, humane, and yet elusive request that we make through music,” he writes. “Map the humanity of those who were gone too soon through soaring tone, and dignified embrace.”

As such, “The Cartography Project” had not just the austerity of a concert program but also the intensity of a memorial service and, more than a few times, the ecstasy of a celebration. This was largely due to the intimacy of the space, the 300-or-so people in the room, and the presence among them of family members of Nia Wilson, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Rayshard Brooks and Philando Castile, as well as representatives from the Tamir Rice Foundation.

The program was presented in a straightforward 90-minute sequence in the Kennedy Center’s Studio K space — a cavernous cabaret in the belly of the Reach complex — its entrance a lure of blue light, its walls crinkly with acoustically crumpled concrete. (It’s actually a great-sounding space with strong potential for ensembles to experiment and genres to let down their guard; on that front, it’s uncertain when, ahem, concessions will return to the space, here and there referred to in KC literature as the Club.)

Performances by small ensembles (composed of members from the National Symphony Orchestra and the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra) were interspersed with excerpts from a companion docuseries by filmmaker T.L. Benton. These proved invaluable if you didn’t fancy swiping and squinting through the 54-page digital program PDF at your table. (KC, can we talk?)

Opener composer Nathaniel Heyder’s “Ahead of Time,” was an NSO commission written as a “statement of positivity” in memory of Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old Cleveland boy shot by police in 2014 while playing outside with a toy gun. A lovely, haunting quintet for clarinet (the NSO’s Paul Cigan was terrific all night), horn, viola, cello and percussion, it cast long tonal shadows cut by shimmers of light. Its textures evoked the innocence of childhood while projected phrases behind the ensemble announced its violation by unthinkable violence: “You had the right to be there,” “Your legacy will be protected.” It was a bracing introduction to the program’s trenchant negotiation of beauty and grief.

“The Cartography Project” anchors itself to the metaphor of a map, and Joseph unpacked this metaphor onstage in “The Road Ahead,” a spoken-word-plus-chamber contribution he wrote with Kennedy Center composer-in-residence Carlos Simon.

Simon and Joseph’s “Road Ahead” was a fine example of their unique musical chemistry, which seems to be gaining momentum. The duo was also behind “It All Falls Down,” an impactful short opera about a preacher and his newly out son (and, for me, the success story of the WNO’s other recent offering of theme-bound short works, “Written in Stone”). On Tuesday night, “The Road Ahead” arrived as an animated, elastic piece of poetry with an arrangement for piano trio and soprano (here the powerful Katerina Burton) that seemed to share its breath with the text.

Two others of the night’s premieres were NSO commissions. Representing Aurora, Colo., composer Jessica Mays offered “Anthem for GO,” a piece for six-piece ensemble that wakes from serpentine strings into a beguiling dialogue with percussionist Scott Christian. Its intent — an evocation of “our blind determination to push for something better ourselves” — was beautifully (if fitfully) manifest in its churning mechanics, militaristic drums, diving strings and shrill whistles. Have you ever pulled yourself together from a panic attack? It was very that.

And Louisville composer Derek Douglas Carter presented “Breonna’s Lullaby,” a stunning work for Breonna Taylor that moves between uncertain gentleness and gentle uncertainty. As a slowly blooming melody deepens and darkens, its gradually gathering intensity is an intriguing foil to its serenity. (In my notes: “it’s not the heat but the humidity.”) Carter’s is a truly exciting compositional voice that I’m eager to hear at full force.

The rest of Tuesday’s premieres were WNO commissions. Representing Minneapolis, composer Liz Gre and librettist Junauda Petrus-Nasah presented the knockout “A Progeny of Perpetual Independence.” An elegy for Minneapolis shooting victims, it featured soprano Amber R. Monroe soaring (and toward the end, scathing) atop an ensemble that rose like bits of flame from Dana Scott’s smoldering piano.

Scott also was an understated highlight of “Mo(u)rning,” from composer B.E. Boykin and librettist Brittny Ray Crowell, although tenor Martin Bakari is now permanently pinned to my map. The piece, dedicated to 2016 Atlanta resident and police shooting victim Rayshard Brooks and inspired by his love of dance, was one of the evening’s most memorable stretches, not least of all for the uncanny lightness of Crowell’s poetry.

The Oakland team of twin siblings Jens Ibsen and Yasmina Ibsen offered “Pretty Girl,” a powerful duo for sopranos Burton and Monroe accompanied by pianist (and Cafritz Young Artists program director) Robert Ainsley. A tribute to Nia Wilson, an Oakland teenager killed by a knife-wielding man in 2018, the music washed its own mourning undertones with passages of soulful defiance. It was the evening’s hookiest offering, and somehow one of its most heartbreaking.

The night closed with “The Burning Bush,” an opera from the Baltimore-based team of composer Jasmine Barnes and Joshua Banbury — and set in a surrealist version of that city’s long-ago vaudeville scene. While pianist Roderick Demmings Jr. stayed onstage to coax out the score’s precisely imagined antiquity, soprano Suzannah Waddington (as an allegorical MC) and baritone Daniel J. Smith (as a vaudevillian “invisible man”) carried the opera’s miniature acts right into the audience. It was a clever way of reflecting the spectacle made of violence against Black people (in this case, Freddie Gray), and inviting revision of the stories (and histories) too often consumed as entertainment.

“The Cartography Project” was a night of good fortune and startling promise. It’s not every commissioning project that delivers such uniform strength and impressive variety.

It also was a powerful demonstration of the musical force that can be conjured by artists who understand the assignment, but more important, by an assignment that understands the artists.

The Cartography Project repeats March 16 at 7:30 p.m. at the Kennedy Center’s Studio K at the Reach. kennedy-center.org.

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