Philadelphia Orchestra composer Hannibal finds humanity amid the loss

Philadelphia Orchestra composer-in-residence Hannibal Lokumbe leads the “walk of love” from Weccacoe Playground (original burial ground of Mother Bethel) to Mother Bethel Church.

It used to be good enough to just play beautifully. Classical music today, though, means to do nothing less than change the world.

The art form may or may not be up to the task. But if orchestras and choirs can make headway in the social mission realm, it will be built on moments such as those of a 23-year-old violinist playing alone against a sea of riot police in Caracas a few weeks ago, and acts of creative defiance of the sort staged by Hannibal Lokumbe on Saturday evening in Philadelphia. He led artists and others on a “walk of love.”

Janice Chandler-Eteme, soprano, left, and Hannibal Lokumbe, center, performing the world premiere of Crucifixion Resurrection: Nine Souls a Traveling, at Mother Bethel Church onJune 17, 2017, with drummer Wayne Smith Jr., and bass player Micah Jones.

Dressed mostly in white and carrying one colorful banner for each of the nine killed in Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church two years ago, about 130 silent souls walked through the streets, under police escort, from the 19th-century Bethel Burying Ground near Fourth and Catharine Streets currently occupied by Weccacoe Playground to Mother Bethel AME Church in Society Hill.

There, Hannibal, who often goes by his first name only and is a Texas-based composer-in-residence with the Philadelphia Orchestra, led the premiere of an hour-long requiem that, to a remarkable degree, gave voice and dignity to each of the Charleston victims.

The concert capped three days of events, starting Thursday at the Painted Bride Art Center with artist Steve Prince explaining the symbolism in each of his banners, and a panel discussion Friday at the National Constitution Center that explored such themes as liberation and forgiveness.

Hannibal Lokumbe performs at the National Constitution Center, June 16, 2017.

“If I don’t forgive, it won’t bring back my sister,” said Sarah Collins Rudolph, a survivor of the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. Hannibal said as much in tone, pulling out his trumpet for a solo that traversed all manner of pain from quiet to full-cry agony, but ultimately becoming a musical essay on human vulnerability and strength.

His ability to marry music and meaning carries over into the written score. Hannibal is working toward a full-scale oratorio, Healing Tones, to be premiered by the orchestra in 2019. In the meantime, there was this more intimate piece, Crucifixion Resurrection: Nine Souls a Traveling. Hannibal cast the four little girls murdered in the Alabama bombing as angels, and had each asking the nine Charleston victims what they wanted recorded in the Book of Ages.

Some answered in spoken word. Other responses were sung by soprano Janice Chandler-Eteme, tenor Rodrick Dixon, or mezzo Tiffany Godette, with the Philadelphia Heritage Chorale led by J. Donald Dumpson, a jazz instrumental trio, and Philadelphia Orchestra violinist Juliette Kang.

Hannibal’s style walks an elegant line. The jazz idiom is pronounced. Recent spiritualists such as Gorecki are an influence. The vocalists move toward opera, then gospel. Styles blend and morph. As a piece of theater, it follows the dramatic contours of a Bach mass. As social conscience, it carries the peace and humanity of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

At Mother Bethel Church for the premiere of Hannibal’s new work.

The piece inducts each victim into sainthood – sometimes quietly, often exuberantly. Hannibal might be at his best building momentum through repeated chord progressions, often ending in rapture that brings the audience to its feet with praiseful hands in the air. His music and words pack a transformative punch. “I was overcome with the beauty and the power of our blood as it slowly changed our worldly garments into the red robes of saints,” he has one of the Charleston victims saying.

A single section was reprised as an ad hoc encore. Daniel Simmons Jr., arrived late from the airport, and so Hannibal brought him on stage to sit in the ensemble as music about his father’s last moments in church in Charleston was played again. All of human meaning and suffering seemed to crystalize there on stage as Simmons listened, looking down at the ground and wiping the sweat from his brow.