Patricia Saunders Nixon, Soprano & Geraldine T. Boone, Piano
Music by Hailstork, Burleigh, Adams, Bonds, Hogan, King & Work
First Baptist Church, Berkley, Norfolk, November 1, 2015
Review by John Campbell
As we waited for the concert to begin we looked at the beautiful, historic stained-glass panels installed behind the altar and lighted from behind. Curious, I asked about the history of the windows from a fellow listener. The windows had been in another church in downtown Norfolk that was demolished and the mayor had given them to First Baptist, Berkley. Online I learned that my informant was the current pastor, William D. Tyree III and son of the previous pastor (1962-1994) William D. Tyree, Jr. who had arranged to have the panels restored in Philadelphia and installed in the church.
In a pale aqua with silver-embroidery, African-style floor-length gown with headdress to match, Patricia Saunders Nixon opened with Adolphus Hailstork’s (b. 1941) Create in Me. Because of the wide range required, the piece is a vocal challenge at any time, more so as the first song of a recital. The message is “Open my lips that I may sing.” The second song, Amazing Grace, was by H. Leslie Adams (b. 1932), with a new melody and text: “Amazing grace surround me with your warm embrace and fill me with your love.”
Continuing the presentation of some of the finest art songs by African American composers with Ms. Boone at the white piano, we heard Theology by Betty Jackson King (1928-1994). The text is “There is a heaven...the upward longing of my soul doth tell me so...there is a hell, I’m quite sure, for pray, if it were not, where would my neighbors go?” This bit of profound humor was followed by Soliloquy by John W. Work III (1901-1967), a personal favorite of mine. The soothing message is “If death is half as sweet as life, I will not fear, I’ll shed no tear…”
The lyrical, flowing llullaby Night by Florence B. Price (1888-1953) speaks of night as a Madonna “clade in scented blue that lights the stars and lounges on a couch of shadows under her silver lamp, the moon. And we rest from the wearied day.” Ms. Nixon closed the set with another song by John Work, Dancing in the Sun, with text by Langston Hughes. It left us laughing and crying by turn. Hearing this familiar repertory done live and so well was quite a thrill.
Part II was four songs by Harry T. Burleigh (1866-1949). In several verses The Little House of Dreams offers a story of encouragement. In what is a conventional love song of his time, Just My Love and I!, the voice soars at the end. The consolation in Just a Wearyin’ for You builds in intensity to the end when the voice flares open. A song of deep faith, His Word is Love has a hymn-like tune of reassurance. Ms. Nixon is a Burleigh expert. Her dissertation, Harry T. Burleigh’s Art Songs: A Forgotten Repertory can be found at www.artsongupdate.org/Reviews/BurleighHarryT.htm/CelebratingHarryTBurleigh.htm
Appearing in a black, full-length gown with head uncovered, Ms. Nixon returned for Part III which was devoted to spirituals arranged by African American composers. He Never Said Mumbalin’ Word set by Moses Hogan captured the depth of the pain of the crucifixion and was sung with power and pathos. New to this writer was Peter On De Sea, Sea, Sea, Sea by J. Rosamund Johnson (1873-1954), a charming relief after the song about the Crucifixion. Cert’n’y, Lord (Hall Johnson, arr. Julius Williams) is a statement of faith: “Do you love everybody? Have you been baptised, redeemed, and feel like shouting?” Followed by the most popular of Margaret Bonds’ (1913-1972) songs, He’s Got the Whole World in His Hand. Near the end the singer slowed the words to a stately pace: “He’s got everybody in his hands.”
Dr. Nixon opened Part IV with Beams of Heaven (arr. Robert Winder, Jr.) with the 20-member choir and organist Keith Q. Bailey on stage. The organ made a musical space punctuated by the piano and Dr. Nixon laid aside classical rules and become a gospel diva but delivered the text gently and never over-extended the voice. The text was clear. Five minutes into the song the singer released the choir and the energy blossomed. The congregation engaged completely in the heart-to-heart communication and there was perfect quiet before she sang The Name of Jesus arranged by Nixon and Bailey. “Jesus how sweet the name” was repeated with variations in an intimate delivery of text. When the choir sang Ms. Nixon sang a high part above. In the ending “I’ll get home someday” Ms. Nixon riffed on “someday.”
The piano leads in the Finale/We Shall Behold Him (arr. David T. Clydesdale). The singer’s small, controlled sound with the organ added a sense of mystery. This restraint built an inner passion as the humming of the choir wrapped around the quiet, urgently delivered text. I melted as she redoubled her energy at the end, singing “We shall behold our Savior and Lord.” The audience reacted with fervor and husband Jimmy Nixon brought her a bouquet of pink roses.
Tidewater Area Musicians, formed in 1919, is the local branch of the National Association of Negro Musicians, Inc. and presented this, their first program of music entirely written by black composers because “they just love music.” In this setting with their support Patricia Saunders Nixon reached a new level of polished vocal performance.
Ms. Nixon had firm control of her vocal resources but as with all sopranos her high legato lines sometimes obscured the text. This could be remedied by inserting a text sheet in the program for the classical repertory.
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