The Sun Valley Music Festival drew on themes of rebirth and freedom for its Saturday night concert by composers with legacies of slavery. After being performed in Fayetteville, Baltimore, Raleigh, New Haven, Bloomington (IL), Providence, Kalamazoo, Washington DC, Leeds (UK), Boston, Amsterdam, and Basel (with Jessica Horsley in Basel the only woman conductor), Florence Price's Ethiopia in America's Shadow – written in 1933 and rediscovered in 2015 – arrived in Ketchum just in time to meet up with Aaron Copland's popular A Lincoln Portrait and the world premiere of Jessie Montgomery's Five Freedom Songs.

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Julia Bullock, Alasdair Neale and the Festival Orchestra
© Sun Valley Music Festival | Nils Ribi Photography

Montgomery's new cycle was conceived in collaboration with soprano Julia Bullock between 2017-2018. “We wanted to create a song cycle that honors our shared African-American heritage and the tradition of the Negro spiritual while also experimenting with non-traditional stylistic contexts,” the composer explains in her program notes. The two worked together to select a combination of familiar and unfamiliar songs sourced from Slave Songs of the United States published in 1867, ironing out kinks in some of the vocal lines and making adjustments to better fit Bullock's voice.

The music is all Montgomery, sensitive and powerful, and ingeniously using the instrumentation – strings and percussion – so that you can hear in the opening song My Lord, What a Morning the stars “begin to fall” and the strong strains of trumpets. In the the middle song, Lay dis Body Down, Montgomery, a former Catalyst Quartet violinist, shows her mastery of strings in an exquisite cello solo. The cycle coalesces in the prison song, My Father, How Long? with its brutal shock ending, and concludes with The Day of Judgment, a tour de force with the strings at one point slapping their hands against their instruments. Bullock sang with inspirational elegant restraint, ranging from soulful calls of praise to a deeply moving melisma, and the large audience both under the tent and on the spacious lawn responded enthusiastically. After its premiere at the festival, Montgomery's new cycle is headed for performances by many co-commissioners from San Francisco to Virginia. With its spare instrumentation and its brilliant last song it could become a regular on the circuit.

The concert opened with Florence Price's 12-minute, three-movement Ethiopia's Shadow in America, written in 1933 alongside the first of her four symphonies. Neale sculpted phrases simply and elegantly from the star-studded Festival Orchestra and paid attention to Price's attractive writing, her Brahms-lite gestures, beautiful solos for the principal violin and cello, and the jaunty tune that works up into something akin to a samba rhythm at the end. The cross-cultural musical influences between Ethiopia and America were not immediately apparent but the energy was good and the idea of shadows an appropriately troubling one.

Despite its noble aspirations and Bullock's intelligent narration, Copland's Lincoln Portrait sounded pale next to Montgomery's youthful passion but connected with its forward-thinking idealism and Lincoln's magnificent words, perhaps strongest and most complex at, “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master.”