Handel’s “Messiah” is performed by orchestras every Christmas with its famed “Hallelujah” chorus, but when the National Philharmonic learned that the 18th century piece was in fact financed by the slave trade, Music Director Piotr Gajewski knew he had to do something.
“National Philharmonic has been performing ‘Messiah’ for decades,” Gajewski told WTOP. “New scholarship reveals that Handel made handsome money investing in the slave trade, so the question is: how do we in the 21st century respond to having learned that? Do we stop playing his music? Or is there some more constructive way of moving forward?”
He chose the constructive path as the philharmonic will donate half of the proceeds from its “Messiah” concerts to the Scotland African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Zion Church in Potomac, Maryland. Founded in 1905, the building was built in 1924 and became a perennial flood victim due to questionable county planning with racial ramifications.
“The county decided to straighten out Seven Locks Road and went through church land,” member Chuck Williams said. “Because of historic treatment of African Americans after the Civil War in the Jim Crow era … we found records of contracts signed by people with the letter ‘X’ because they could not read or write. … The church wound up in a flood plain.”
In 2019, a severe rainstorm flooded the basement so bad that it took out one of the walls, making it unsafe for the congregation to go back into the building. Today, the community has launched the 2nd Century Project, which aims to raise $9 million for renovations.
“We’re looking at an opportunity to rebuild, to look back at how these things happened and restore the ground so that we’re able to mitigate the damage,” Williams said. “Then we’re looking at an expansion project to build something that can better serve the community.”
The National Philharmonic benefit concerts take place on Saturday, Dec. 17 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Dec. 18 at 3 p.m. at Strathmore in North Bethesda, Maryland, followed by another concert on Friday, Dec. 23 at 7:30 p.m. at Capital One Hall in Tysons, Virginia.
“We invite everyone to come out, hear some great music and know that half of what you’re paying for your ticket is going to support this project,” Gajewski said. “We have a fabulous cast of soloists that incidentally is all African American, a quartet of soloists conducted by Stan Engebretson, our chorale artistic director at the National Philharmonic.”
The Black soloists include soprano Kearstin Piper Brown, mezzo soprano Lucia Bradford, tenor Norman Shankle and baritone Jorell Williams, along with the full orchestra. The church’s choir will also perform in the lobby of Strathmore ahead of the concerts.