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Uri CAINE (b. 1956)
The Passion of Octavius Catto
Uri Caine (piano)
Barbara Walker (solo vocals)
Mike Boone (bass)
Clarence Penn (drums)
The Nedra Neal Singers
The Philadelphia Choral Ensemble
The Catto Freedom Orchestra/André Raphel
rec. 23 August 2018, The DiMenna Center for Classical Music, New York City, NY, USA
WINTER & WINTER 910 269-2 [29:53]

Uri Caine is well-known for recordings fusing jazz, klezmer and other music genres to famous music by other composers such as Bach and Mahler. He is also an excellent pianist and his artistry is well represented on this recording, but this is very much a modern Passion complete with solo singers, choir and orchestra, creating as much contrast and variety in the narrative as we know and love in those much-loved examples by J.S. Bach.

Uri Caine grew up in Philadelphia where the events in this piece took place, but its main impulse came from a biography of Octavius Catto (1839-1871), Tasting Freedom, by Daniel Biddle and Murray Dubin. Catto became a significant figure in politics and the civil rights struggle amongst discrimination and violence against African-Americans in Philadelphia, leading the fight to allow his people to join the armed forces and fight in the Civil War and being elected secretary of the Pennsylvania Equal Rights League. Catto was murdered at the age of 32 in 1871 during the Philadelphia riots on Election Day.

“There are 10 chapters to The Passion of Octavius Catto”, and you can gain an impression of these from the titles listed. If you know any of Uri Caine’s output you will know to ‘expect the unexpected’, and there is a indeed a mixture of styles here, all of which apply directly to the words set or the action depicted. The orchestra weighs in early to describe violence and turmoil, launched in the Prologue with its expressive chorus, but developed considerably in The Mobs Burn Down Pennsylvania Hall, and later in the brutal Murder scene. It also has a tricky little Ivesian ‘concerto for orchestra’ to depict Catto’s sporting prowess in Baseball Star of 1867 in which the strings are tested to their limit. I get the impression that Caine had been listening to Messiaen’s Turangalila Symphonie with some of the orchestral passages here and elsewhere. Many of the texts are from speeches made by Octavius Catto, set in a jazz/gospel style, for which Barbara Walker’s rich voice is entirely perfect. The Philadelphia Streetcar Protests covers a lot of ground in its 2:45 timespan, telling as it does of Caroline Le Count, who in 1868 was refused entry to a Philadelphia streetcar, on which she hailed a policeman to complain that her rights were being violated and winning a subsequent court case in which the driver was fined 100 dollars. This event predates Rosa Parks’ protest by over 75 years, and is just one example of how these struggles have gone on for centuries. Caroline became Catto’s fiancé, and her Lament after the murder scene is movingly simple. The Passion concludes with an uplifting gospel-style number, The Martyr Rests, with its defiant message “The Martyr rests and we a million strong!/The Martyr rests backed by a million more!”

“The Passion of Octavius Catto is a tribute to a great man’s life, reminding us that the fight for equal rights continues to this day.” So end the descriptive notes in the booklet for this release, in which all sung texts are printed, and illustrated further with contemporary documentation and photos of what looked like a joyful recording session. Everything is well recorded and the whole experience is a wealth of music both terrifically entertaining and challenging in its content. My only criticism is that it ain’t long enough. The première was in 2014, and if it had been my work I would have expanded it a little for the recording. The lack of any transition between the final two numbers, from the moving Lament to the initially joyful Martyr is arguably a bit jarring, and without wanting to turn it into something overblown and Wagnerian there is enough material in most of the chapters to expand them somewhat. That’s only my opinion as one composer to another, and is by no means intended as any negative comment on what is indeed a valuable tribute to a name of which we know too little over here in Europe. Raising awareness of the issues and events depicted here is always timely, and that is both its distinction and its sadness; that we still live in a climate of racism, discrimination and violence against people, based on nothing more than their race or colour.

Dominy Clements

Chapters
Prologue [2:17]
The Mobs Burn Down Pennsylvania Hall, Philadelphia (May 17,1838) [3:12]
No East No West [3:42]
The Philadelphia Streetcar Protests (March 1867) [2:45]
Baseball Star of 1867 [3:11]
Change [3:19]
The Amendments [3:07]
Murder (October 10,1871) [3:35]
The Lament of Caroline Le Count [2:01]
The Martyr Rests (October 16, 1871) [2:39]



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