Advertised as "the first-ever oratorio to be founded on an indigenous creation story" -- and it may well be so -- Enemy Slayer: A Navajo Oratorio was commissioned from composer Mark Grey by the Phoenix Symphony as part of its longstanding effort to bring a little of the American Southwest into its concert halls and to bridge the gap between Native American and Western cultures. After all, you can't play Grofé's Grand Canyon Suite every time you want to have a taste of home in concert halls in Phoenix, and the region is rich with lore, tradition, and captivating landscapes; the very stuff great classical compositions are often made of. Grey's fulfillment of his year-long tenure as the Phoenix Symphony's composer-in-residence went well beyond the usual call of duty; a 70-minute oratorio for baritone soloists -- Scott Hendricks, in this instance -- full orchestra and a chorus of 140 voices. Enemy Slayer is based on a creation story of the Diné or, as familiarly known, Navajo people, and its libretto was written by Diné poet Laura Tohe.
"Enemy Slayer" deals with the evolution behind the sacred ceremony called Anaa'ji, or Enemy Way, which remains a vital part of the Diné liturgy. Tohe's libretto does not deal directly with the ceremony itself, but she and Grey have fashioned something that is like a long, sacred ceremony out of the legend, a part of Diné lore that is more or less a matter of public record already. One thing that is immediately apparent upon listening to this is the enormous amount of respect that Grey and Tohe regard for the tradition that they are paying homage to; there is nothing in this music that brings to mind phrases like "string quartet on Indian themes" or other trite concoctions on Native American melody that used to be the rule in classical concert music of such kind. Tohe and Grey are interested in the content of the source, and that is what is delivered in a massive, solemn, and moving result. Grey's music is often slow in tempo and dense in texture, but it still delivers the sense of violence that is at the core of the legend it portrays. A sound designer who has worked with John Adams, Grey knows the value of a good recording, and percussive effects pack a punch; the recording is big, spacious, and captures all of the details of the orchestration and chorus in spite of the size of the forces involved. About the only thing one could comment about is that Hendricks seems a bit far forward upon his first entrance. He has a big bullhorn of a voice, which is exactly what the role he's playing needs; however, it seems a little strong at first in regard to the background, though it comfortably settles in as events move along. The huge chorus is splendid, and the Phoenix Symphony's Michael Christie seems determined that this is not going to be a typical, dutiful realization of a commission; Enemy Slayer is an event that has a special significance to the community to which it belongs, and its various parts are kept scrupulously in check and delivered with absolute seriousness of purpose.
Enemy Slayer is a landmark piece in the history of the often corrosive collision of Native America and the concert hall; this one, though, doesn't hurt, and it may well go a long way toward building a bridge between these cultures. From the standpoint of Western music, however, Enemy Slayer is a revelatory and utterly different musical experience in the realm of oratorio -- an admirable achievement indeed.