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Every week, WRTI features a different album on the air. Learn more about them here.

Classical Album of the Week: An Oratorio Inspired by Underground Railroad Conductor William Still


February 24, 2020. As WRTI continues to mark Black History Month, we feature an album that celebrates, through contemporary music, the writings of the 19th-century Philadelphia abolitionist William Still.  Still wrote a book titled The Underground Railroad in 1872, which detailed his efforts aiding runaway slaves. Three years ago, that book inspired the Pulitzer-winning contemporary American composer Paul Moravec to write Sanctuary Road, a work he calls an “American historical oratorio."

This work is the second time Moravec has joined forces with librettist Mark Campbell. Their first collaboration was the opera The Shining.

Reviews of Sanctuary Road have been universally positive. Broadway World said: “It not only creates a wall of pulsating sound for the chorus but also conceives a set of arias for the soloists that brings individual stories unmistakably to life–thanks to a libretto by Campbell that gathers vivid and heart-rending details from Still’s journals.” Black Grooves had this to say:  “Sanctuary Road is a modern choral masterpiece, representing struggle and hope in the best of the oratorio tradition.” 

William Still was born in New Jersey but settled in Philadelphia when he was 26 years old. Three years later, he began work as a clerk for the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society.  When a Vigilance Committee was formed by Philadelphia abolitionists to help escaped slaves who had travelled north to reach Philadelphia, Still was asked to be its chairman. Still continued to be at the forefront of Philadelphia's African American community for many years after.

Paul Moravec won a Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2004 for his work Tempest Fantasy.   Moravec also won a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship, the Charles Ives Prize, and a composer fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. He is a professor at Adelphi University in New York.

Reflections on Sanctuary Road:

Sanctuary Road features:

Laquita Mitchell – Soprano

Raehann Bryce-Davis – Mezzo

Joshua Blue – Tenor

Malcolm J. Merriweather – Baritone

Dashon Burton – Bass-baritone

The Oratorio Society of New York Chorus and Orchestra is conducted by Kent Tritle