Anthony Davis is very much an establishment composer who writes polished music derived squarely from European traditions, though embellished with American vernacular. Educated at Yale, where he now teaches, he’s done teaching stints at other Ivy League schools and received commissions from important ensembles and opera houses on both sides of the Atlantic. His chief claim to fame (and his chief credit with funders) is his 1985 opera, X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X, which mixes Wagner and jazz in an attempt to create a contemporary American myth. While emotionally involving at times, X is too episodic and musically indecisive to qualify as a major artistic success, and his subsequent operas have gotten less critical acclaim. But Davis recently finished another opera dealing with the African-American experience, Amistad, which will be mounted by Lyric Opera next season. It’s based on a real incident in the early 1800s, a mutiny aboard a Spanish slave ship. Tricked by the crew into believing that they were headed back to Africa, the African mutineers landed in New York and were put on trial. It took the legal ingenuity of John Quincy Adams to free them. A preview of sorts is provided by this performance of Voyage Through Death to Life Upon These Shores, a half-hour, rather conservatively cast a cappella work detailing the fate of the slaves and their descendants that uses a poem by Robert Earl Hayden as its libretto. The spiritual melodies and jazzy rhythms in this lyrical, gentle choral anthem, which recalls Samuel Barber and Benjamin Britten, can also be heard in the opera. Davis’s craftsmanship is fairly meticulous, especially in the contrapuntal passages. Philip Morehead conducts a semiprofessional mixed chorus and a quartet of soloists that includes tenor Thomas Young and soprano Cynthia Aaronson-Davis, both featured on the CD of X (Gramavision). Friday, 7:30 PM, St. James Cathedral, 65 E. Huron; 312-294-3000.


Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/ Ray Block.