The Underground Railroad, the path of clandestine safe houses through which African American slaves were smuggled to freedom in Canada, has been the subject of dramatic musical treatments before, but composer Paul Moravec's Sanctuary Road is unique. Moravec terms it an oratorio, and indeed, with its prominent choral role, multiple functions for the chorus (it both comments on the actions and embodies slaveholders), and episodic structure, an oratorio is what it is. Yet there's plenty of dramatic action of an operatic sort, with chase scenes and first-person narration, some of it spoken from the escapees, including one who mails himself, has his box inscribed "This Side Up," but is turned upside down anyhow. This highly varied and listenable structure allows plenty of room for soloists, representing various escapees as well as William Still, who interviewed them and wrote about the entire Underground Railroad phenomenon. The soloists, all African American, are an able group, but bass-baritone Dashon Burton, as Still, has an especially compelling, authoritative quality as he intones the name of the escapees at the beginning. The performance was recorded live at the work's 2018 premiere at Carnegie Hall in New York, and the Oratorio Society of New York Chorus under Kent Tritle is both precise and energetic in the pressure-packed situation of a single recorded performance.
AllMusic Review by James Manheim