Friday, March 12, 2010

The American Spiritual Ensemble at ACDA in Memphis

On Wednesday night the American Spiritual Ensemble led by Dr. Everett McCorvey sang one of the greatest concerts I have ever heard. McCorvey's mission for the fifteen years since he founded this group is to perform the music of the great African-American spirituals both in this country and abroad, and to teach people about this music with hopes that this rich, broad, and culturally important repertoire will feature more prominently on our concert programs and in our schools.

The program consisted of about twenty pieces, presented as a mixture of choral music and solos. Dr. McCorvey believes in full formant singing, healthy vocal production, and an interpretation of this music deeply rooted in the tradition of concert spirituals going all the way back to the famous Fisk Jubilee Singers in the nineteenth century. His singers are all professionally trained, many of them having careers in opera, thus the big strong formant sound when the music calls for it. McCorvey himself is an impressive conductor and interpreter of this music, his conducting being about the rhythms, subrhythms, and the importance of beat weight of this music; he also brings out word stresses and inflections that lesser conductors would never even think of. His gestures are clear, strong and confident and it is obvious that his choir knows every gesture very well and will do anything for him- such is the trust inherent in their relationship.

As I said, the program was rooted in the great tradition, and in speaking with Dr. McCorvey he expressed his driving interest, which is to maintain this music and have it enter or reenter the repertoire on a wider basis. He especially hopes that gospel, jazz or other elements not be mistaken for the real-deal spiritual and I totally agree with this idea. There is nothing wrong with mixing genres now and then, but let’s at the very least know that we are mixing them. I think he and I both worry that what often passes as a spiritual arrangement is barely that; and the very legitimate concern is that high school singers, for example, will not truly know the real spiritual arrangements, their style, and the real history of this music.

The program consisted of the classics-- Harry T. Burleigh, William Dawson, Hall Johnson, and moved through into Moses Hogan and Roland Carter-all great arrangements sung in the most amazing way by these very talented 28 singers. Especially effective were dramatic no holds barred performances of Hogan’s “Didn’t my Lord deliver Daniel” and Dawson’s “Ezekiel saw de wheel”.

The solos (and some duets) gave individual singers a chance to shine, and most of them really brought home the often intensely personal story contained in some of these spiritual texts. This is where the true emotions of sorrow and despair, but also hope and faith brought the audience to tears at times. There is no escaping the universal laser truth of this music, and by that I mean that it is rooted in the very real world of our lives and our struggles, and also our hope for grace either now or in the future. Especially touching were "Is there anybody there"" sung by Albert Lee, "I gotta lie down" sung by Kenneth Overton, and "Here's One", a masterful , subtlely colored arrangement by William Grant Still, sung sweetly by John Wesley Wright. The two solos that really brought down the house due to amazingly intense and beautiful storytelling were "O Redeemed" sung by Laurence Albert; and tears flowed when Calesta Day's touching performance of "Give me Jesus" concluded. On the brighter side of the spectrum, folks hooped and hollered for Hope Koehler’s sassy and bouncy version of "I wanna be ready", with some vocal runs and inflections that a “pop diva” like Mariah Carey would wish she could match!
Providing amazing accompaniment for the solos and the non a.c. choral pieces was Tedrin Blair Lindsay, a pianist with the most amazing chops on some technically demanding music. His sense of rhythm and color and total fearlessness in the passages with a ton of notes all over the keyboard was awe-inspiring (says this former accompanist!). The ensemble is very fortunate to have him there at the piano.

All in all, this program was a major event for ACDA- truly American music of historic and cultural importance sung by dedicated American artists led by a man who inspires greatness in all who are in his presence. I was touched deeply “down in-a my soul” by this music and this ensemble, and was also deeply moved by the strong, honest artistic convictions of Dr. McCorvey which he shared with me during two conversations we squeezed in between all of his interest session commitments and travel schedule.
By the way, his ”other job” is leading the University of Kentucky Opera program, which he built from scratch into a leading program with an endowment of over five million dollars. Amazing!
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1 comment:

  1. Truly one of the best concerts I've attended, at ACDA or anywhere. This was my 14th ACDA, and this ranks at the top all time for me. The full gamut of emotions were experience that night, and I left feeling like I could go home then and ACDA would've been worthwhile.

    Making this concert even more special for me was the fact that I'd spent that morning at the National Civil Rights Museum on the site of the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated. What an amazing day to have had both of these experiences!

    Thanks to the ASE and ACDA for an incredible concert!