Vocal Arts Ensemble of Cincinnati to Receive First-Ever Grant from the National Endowment for the Arts

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Photo by JP Leong

The Vocal Arts Ensemble of Cincinnati (VAE) has been awarded its first-ever National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Grant. The grant will commission a new small ensemble orchestration of Sanctuary Road by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Paul Moravec and Grammy Award-winning librettist Mark Campbell to be premiered by the Vocal Arts Ensemble of Cincinnati on April 29, 2023. The project is one of 1,251 Grants for Arts Projects awarded by the NEA.

Sanctuary Road is an American historical oratorio inspired by one of the most successful campaigns of civil disobedience in American history. The libretto by Mark Campbell is drawn from William Still’s The Underground Railroad Records (1872), a collection of interviews with enslaved people who traveled the Underground Railroad on their journeys to freedom in the 1800s. The astonishing stories included in Sanctuary Road tell of death-defying feats, narrow escapes, and heart-wrenching decisions made in navigating the intricate network of safe houses and secret routes of the Underground Railroad. Not only does the oratorio honor the heroic work of William Still, it also brings awareness to the widespread trauma and injury – both physical and psychological – inflicted upon enslaved people passed on through generations of Black communities in the United States.

Composed in 2017, Sanctuary Road transformed the epic stories of courage, perseverance, and sacrifice along the Underground Railroad into a musical saga to be performed by soloists, a full mixed-voice chorus, and orchestra. The world premiere of the fully-orchestrated Sanctuary Road, took place at Carnegie Hall in 2018, and a reduced operatic orchestration was performed by the North Carolina Opera in Spring 2022. This further reduced orchestration commissioned by VAE and supported by the NEA will Vocal Arts Ensemble of Cincinnati to Receive First-Ever Grant from the National Endowment for the Arts | 2 of 2 make this important work accessible to small choral ensembles that may not have the resources to perform the full orchestration or commission a new arrangement of the piece.

“I am thrilled and deeply grateful to Vocal Arts Ensemble and the NEA for making possible this reduced-orchestration version of Sanctuary Road,” said Paul Moravec. “Mark Campbell and I are hopeful that this new, more readily practicable iteration of our oratorio of will open up a host of fresh performance possibilities as it makes its way in the world.”

The finished project will be performed by VAE led by Grammy Award-winning Craig Hella Johnson on April 29, 2023, at the Aronoff Center for the Arts’ Jarson-Kaplan Theater. It is the second installment in the VAE’s multi-season, multi-composer series of commissions.

“We are truly honored by this recognition from the National Endowment for the Arts,” said Music Director Craig Hella Johnson. “For the ensemble, this first-ever grant from the NEA is an important recognition and validation of the superb artistry and dedication of the singers of the Vocal Arts Ensemble. I am especially pleased, not only for the privilege to perform the premiere of this new orchestration for Cincinnati audiences, but because its creation will also mean that this important work by Paul Moravec and Mark Campbell will now see many additional performances. This grant will have a significant impact on the reach of this work, and this powerful story now can be shared with many more communities around the nation.”

“The National Endowment for the Arts is proud to support arts projects in communities nationwide,” said NEA Chair Maria Rosario Jackson, PhD. “Projects, such as this one with the Vocal Arts Ensemble of Cincinnati, strengthen arts and cultural ecosystems, provide equitable opportunities for arts participation and practice, and contribute to the health of our communities and our economy.”

Tickets for Vocal Arts Ensemble of Cincinnati’s 2022-2023 season, including Sanctuary Road, are now available online at vaecinci.com or by calling 513.381.3300. For more information, visit vaecinci.com.