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New Classical Tracks: Oratorio shines a light on Underground Railroad conductor William Still

William Still (1821-1902), a conductor on the Underground Railroad who helped nearly 800 enslaved African Americans to freedom. Naxos American Classics
4min 59sec : New Classical Tracks: 'Sanctuary Road'
24min 57sec : New Classical Tracks: 'Sanctuary Road' (extended)

Paul Moravec/Oratorio Society of New York Chorus and Orchestra/Kent Tritle — Sanctuary Road (Naxos)

Sanctuary Road is a new oratorio commissioned by the New York Oratorio Society. A new live recording captures the moving world premiere performance that took place at Carnegie Hall on May 7th, 2018.

This oratorio shines a light on William Still, a conductor of the Underground Railroad. Not only did Still risk his life helping people find freedom, he wrote about their stories and their struggles. In return, many wrote letters of gratitude to William Still.

I recently spoke with librettist Mark Campbell, soprano Laquita Mitchell, and composer Paul Moravec, who talked openly about the significance of these stories and this powerful work.

Paul: "I brought in Mark Campbell, my librettist on The Shining, an opera we wrote with Minnesota Opera in 2016. It was his inspired idea to focus on the figure of William Still, who was head of the station, as they called it, in Philadelphia on the Underground Railroad."

Mark: "When Paul first approached me and said, 'I'd like us to write an oratorio about the Underground Railroad,' of course, I leapt at the idea because I really wanted to work with Paul. And I also love the subject matter. But I also was aware that the subject matter is problematic when the creative team is composed of two white guys.

"I immediately found William Still, and I'm not going to be a white guy writing about slavery, but I can certainly honor an African-American who was a conductor, who was there, who chronicled these stories. I can write about him truthfully, and as long as that work is truthful — and it is — and as long as we put the African-American singers in the forefront of these stories, then I think we're fine. And that's precisely what happened at Carnegie Hall.

"When five African-American soloists came out and stood in front of a mostly white chorus — big sea of white in the back — the audience erupted into applause. That moment alone said: This is okay. You are allowing us to tell our stories. So, it was at first a little uncomfortable. And now I feel absolutely 100 percent right that this was the best thing to do."

The title of this work is very significant, Sanctuary Road. Can you two talk about how you collaborated on the title and why it's so important?

Paul: "I wanted the word 'sanctuary' somewhere in the title because I was thinking of sanctuary cities, and because I think that there are aspects to this story — the Underground Railroad — that are timeless and universal, and the story doesn't end. It hasn't ended. I mean, there are aspects of it that continue today. Then Mark came up with the title Sanctuary Road, which I think is brilliant."

Laquita, you're the soprano soloist in this oratorio. What does it mean to you to be a part of this wonderful project?

Laquita: As an artist, it was important for me to lend my voice to something that had something to do with me as a black woman. I felt that it was important for me to be a part of it and important for my family and I to sit around and talk about their experiences, which I didn't really know much about. It's fostered tons of conversations, especially today. So, I'm really, really happy to be a part of the piece.

"When I listen to the finale, and I realize that the words I'm singing are the actual words that were written to William Still, thanking him for what he had done, it brings me to tears to know that these people risked everything to be free."

To hear the rest of my conversation, click on the extended interview above, or download the extended podcast on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts.


Paul Moravec — Sanctuary Road (Amazon)

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