"It made me cry. It was really beautiful," said Larson, author of the biography "Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman: Portrait of an American Hero."
The San Luis Obispo Master Chorale will perform "The Journey of Harriet Tubman" at 3 p.m. Sunday at the Performing Arts Center in San Luis Obispo as part of its spring concert. Also on the program is Johannes Brahms' "Ein Deutsches Requiem."
In addition, Larson will speak locally about Tubman and her legacy. She'll give talks at 3:30 p.m. Friday at Cal Poly's Davidson Music Center and 3:30 p.m. Saturday at the First Presbyterian Church of San Luis Obispo, and sit down for a conversation with Kean at 1:30 p.m. Sunday at the Performing Arts Center.
Commissioned by Bakersfield College, "The Journey of Harriet Tubman," which premiered March 2017, pays tribute to a brilliant, principled woman of unshakeable courage and religious faith.
Born into slavery in Dorchester County, Maryland, Tubman escaped from bondage in 1849 and dedicated her life to fighting for liberty and equality — leading more than 300 enslaved men, women and children to freedom as a "conductor" on the Underground Railroad and serving as a spy and nurse during the Civil War. She also supported women's suffrage and helped establish a home for the elderly.
"She really came from nothing, the most obscure and disadvantaged origins, and was able to climb out and really change the world and make a difference," Larson said.
"The Journey of Harriet Tubman" illustrates the activist's remarkable life in five movements, incorporating West African music and 19th-century spirituals such as "Follow the River" that would have been sung during Tubman's time.
"It was three months of scholarship before I could write a note," said Kean, who retired as Bakersfield College choral director in 2013 after 19 years. "As a white person trying to write something that honors west African and African American culture, I wanted to make sure there was no cultural appropriation involved."
Kean said the first spiritual he arranged was "Go Down Moses," which Tubman sang to summon would-be escapees to the woods outside their plantations.
Kean uses the song "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child" to explore the hardships experienced by those on the run, while "Steal Away" expresses the brutality of life on a chain gang.
Meanwhile, "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," with its mentions of angels, references the dreams and visions Tubman experienced after suffering a head injury as a teenager.
Singers are accompanied by only two instruments: the African mbira, or, thumb piano, and marimba, a descendent of the African balafon.
Larson said Tubman's story is more relevant now than ever before.
"It's becoming apparent that Americans really don't have a handle on what slavery was all about and what the Civil War was all about," the historian said, as well as "the cost and struggles of the fight for freedom in this country."
Pointing to recent uses of blackface and other racially charged incidents, she added, "We have not done a good job of teaching that history."
Larson said Tubman, whose face will eventually grace the $20 bill, can help.
"She brings an emotional element to that story of slavery and the pursuit of freedom," Larson said. "People get it when they hear about her life."
San Luis Obispo Master Chorale Spring Concert
3 p.m. Sunday
Harman Hall, Performing Arts Center, Cal Poly
$10 to $50