Soprano Patricia Saunders Nixon & Pianist Geraldine T. Boone
An Evening Exploring “Crowns” and Spirituals
Hofheimer Theater, VWC. February 6, 2017
Review by John Campbell

The multi-media recital began with projected black and white photos from Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats by Michael Cunningham. Wearing an impressive black “church hat” and an elegant black suit, Patricia Saunders Nixon sang eleven art songs with readings from the Cunningham book that told the story of African American women's experiences in the last half of the twentieth century and the roles those hats played. Dr. Rebecca Hooker, Batten Associate Professor of English at Virginia Wesleyan and current students Jay Vernon '17, Patrice Glover '16 and Morgan Boyd '20, offered insightful excerpts from the women who were photographed in hats.

A James Baldwin (1923-1987) quote from the program booklet set the tone: “Our crown has already been bought and paid for. All we have to do is wear it. The purchase price is given in the first song with its lengthy, somber piano opening so well-played by Geraldine T. Boone, Ms. Nixon's long-time collaborator. He Never Said a Mumbalin' Word, arranged by Moses Hogan (1957-2003), was first recorded some 75 years ago by Marian Anderson as Crucifixion (arr. Payne). Ms. Nixon's reverential, understated singing superbly captured the pathos of the text “Wasn't it a pity and a shame” as her high, embellished closing note of “not a word.” This was followed by long-held, rich, low notes of the opening of Deep River (arr. Hogan) giving us some notion of the wide range of Ms. Nixon's spectacular open voice.

In a lighter mood, Peter on De Sea, Sea, Sea, Sea , a novelty song by J. Rosamond Johnson (1873-1954), was fun. Ms. Nixon's rich sound, with all those overtones of a Verdi operatic soprano in Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child, was enfolding. This and Swing Low, Sweet Chariot were set by Harry T. Burleigh (1866-1949), the subject of Ms. Nixon's doctoral dissertation at Shenandoah University. It can be found on our website at: (steve will add title and link)

A childhood favorite of mine came next: a 1985 arrangement by Hale Smith (1925-2009) of This Little Light of Mine, became an art song, sung in a lovely, gentle voice. Cert'n'y, Lord, arranged by Hall Johnson (1888-1970) and Julius Williams (b. 1954) is an energetic tune about loving everybody, being baptized and redeemed and we are urged: “run tell your sisters and brothers.”

Each reading or song was accompanied by a projected picture of a hatted head. Some that look like hobnail upholstery, feathered fantasy crowns, animal prints with collar to match, tiny, elegant veiled hats and some extravagant, large hats.

An especially powerful song, Po'Mo'ner Got a Home at Las', has a great vocal wail mid-song and ends in a near-whimpering repeat of the song title. All this in an attempt to give the tired, repentant sinner some comfort in his troubled heart. Continuing the music of comfort in He's Got the Whole World in His Hand by Margaret Bonds (1913-1972), Ms. Nixon negotiated the high notes with ease. The powerfully deliberate ending had her opening her arms wide to a most receptive audience.

The next reading quoted a young college student required to always wear hat, gloves and heels with stockings when in town; the only exception was picketing Woolworth's lunch counter— it took the civil rights movement to get those hats off our heads.” The joyful You Can Tell the World, followed. She closed with Ride On, King Jesus! (H. Johnson) sung in an assured and at times tender delivery.

For many years we have followed the career of these artists and seeing them at this pinnacle of their art was wonderful. Ms. Nixon was in full control of her formidable instrument, from delicate, long, diminuendo to full power and everything in-between, keeping her power in reserve until called for, serving the song and the arranger as only a classically trained singer with fully realized powers of expression can. If you ever questioned why spirituals are considered art songs, you only had to witness this performance.


Red Priest
Hofheimer Hall, April 25, 2017
Review by M.D. Ridge

The word is out about Red Priest, which explains the standing room only crowd for their concert at Virginia Wesleyan’s Hofheimer theater April 25. The off-the-wall baroque quartet took on Handel’s Messiah (you may well wonder how a quartet was going to do that) and Vivaldi’s Four Seasons (ditto). Of course, if your idea of baroque chamber music is all solemn and buttoned-up, you’d be right; it would be impossible.

But not for the players of Red Priest, named after the red-headed composer Vivaldi. There’s no one like them anywhere in the world. Literally.

There’s Piers Adams, recordist extraordinaire, with his stock of recorders ranging from tiny sopranino instruments to a big, bent bass recorder. He stashes them in a cloth on the floor under the harpsichord, and bends down to switch instruments, often several times in a single movement. But you can do that— and play harmony with two recorders simultaneously—if you’re the best in the world.

The leonine Angela East—think Janis Joplin with a cello, only better—has played all over the world, not only with Red Priest, but with leading baroque orchestras, and her own ensemble, The Revolutionary Drawing Room.

David Wright plays the harpsichord—in this case, the gorgeous black-and-red 2016 Robert Duffy harpsichord, from the collection of Thomas Marshall, harpsichordist for William and Mary’s Wren Masters. Wright appears to be the calmest of the quartet, but appearances can be deceiving, like the classic description of a duck: serene on the surface, but paddling furiously underneath. The program noted that he joined Red Priest in 2011, “since which time his life slowly but surely has started to unravel.”

Violinist David Greenberg, who at one point looks like Groucho Marx playing Chaplin, can, I think, do anything with his instrument—from ardent passion to hand percussion (on a violin?) to gypsy throbbing to growling menace to high-speed duets with Adams’s recorders—and that’s just the beginning. He grew up in Maryland, lives in Nova Scotia and specializes not only in baroque music but Scottish baroque folk music and Cape Breton fiddle music. He tours with Red Priest for their U.S. Tours.

Individually and together, they’re simply brilliant.

Noting that Handel was a great improviser, they began the Messiah variations with Adams making bird calls on a sopranino recorder, looking up into the rafters. Fast passages seemed to be at incredible speed—until they were played even faster, with awesome technical skills.

East, the cellist, said she had arranged the Messiah for Red Priest, calling Handel “very transparent and easy to arrange for the four of us.” Excuse me—this is” easy?” A phrase from Jesus Christ Superstar floats up—and disappears. The cello begins the ominous theme from Jaws—and ramps up into high speed. Greenberg’s violin zooms into an Irish tune—one phrase and gone. “How beautiful are the feet” gets labeled “Siciliano Pedicura”—Sicilian pedicure. Riiiiight. East’s cello brings out a “walking” bass line leading up into a bluesy “Hallelujah!” with bent notes. Greenberg segues into throbbing gypsy violin. They change keys again and again, and a phrase of “Happy Birthday” cracks the audience up. Insanity meets excellence.

Vivaldi’s Four Seasons had texts that we never hear; the program included descriptions from those texts of a sleeping goatherd, a barking dog; summer, birdcalls; a drunken harvest celebration, drowsy drunkards, a stag hunt; winter’s bitter frost and cold winds, dreaming by the fire, ice skating, the ice breaks, more winds. Red Priest did it all: cuckoo and other birds, an odd waltz, a storm enhanced by flickering lights and thunder. In a slow section of “Autumn,” East slumps over her cello; Wright slumps over the harpsichord, hitting a note with his forehead; Adams lies on the floor, playing an impossibly long, long, long note until Greenberg pokes him with his bow. Wright suddenly strikes up “God Save the Queen” on his harpsichord. An odd tango is eventually discerned as “April Showers.”

Yes, it’s hilarious—more importantly, it’s utterly miraculous musicianship and the highest form of play. Sandra Billy, director of the Center for Sacred Music and Artistic Director of the VWC Concert series, says they try to get Red Priest back often enough so that every student will be able to see them at least once during their four years. At Tuesday’s performance were students, former students, members of the public, musicians—all of whom rose, cheering and whistling, for a long, well-deserved standing ovation.

This review was originally broadcast on WHRO 90.3 FM’s “From the other side of the Footlights.”

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