Hampton University Hosts a
Celebration of African-American Composers
I am happy to report that the classical African-American choral tradition is alive and well and living at Hampton University. To celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, January 15, 2007, we were gathered in Odgen Hall. As we waited for the concert to begin we were presented scenes of his life and legacy projected onto a giant screen on the stage. Once the program began, three separate choirs presented a variety of spirituals, gospel songs and hymns with readings between each choral set. The opening set was conducted by Jason Dungee, a recent graduate of Hampton University who took an advanced degree at Westminster Choir College and returned to the area and now conducts the Woodside High School Meister Singers, an a capella group of fourteen, mostly juniors and seniors. Using two of Mr. Dungee's arrangements and two others by friends of the conductor, they gave a convincing recital appropriate to the occasion.
The I. Sherman Greene Chorale, conducted by Terry Butler, opened with Undine Smith Moore's Striving After God with Fred Wallace at the piano. After an a capella performance of Roland Carter's I Want to Die Easy, his Hold Fast to Dreams, with piano, followed. Moses Hogan's Jesus Lay Your Head in the Window had a Broadway influenced Gospel sound. It was very popular with the audience.
To my ear, the best set of the evening was the refined, disciplined vocal forces of the Hampton University Concert Choir, conducted by Royzell L. Dillard. Twenty-two students shouted with joy in Lord, We Give Thanks to Thee by Moore but whispered effectively in In Bright Mansions arranged by Carter. The Ave Maria, with a very effective bass/baritone soloist was set by R. Nathaniel Dett who guided the musical program at H. U. many years ago. I'll Stand by Raymond Wise poses the question "Is there anybody here who will stand for the Master?" The wave of "I'll stand" built layer by layer, placed against, on top of or beneath the last layer of sound generated an enormous energy and created a mighty and joyful noise.
The last set, using combined choirs, was titled "In Memoriam." and included songs by Hogan (Dungee conductor) and Carter's Precious Lord. With the audience standing and singing with the choir, Lift Every Voice and Sing was an exciting and powerful experience. We Shall Overcome was performed with two verses sung by both audience and chorus, one audience only, one chorus only. "We shall live in peace today" by the audience, "We'll walk hand and hand some day" sung by tenor Dungee, "We shall be free today" by the chorus and together once again "We shall overcome." A moving way to celebrate a great leader's life.
Hampton University Hosts TodiMusicFest Concert
Tenor Rodrick Dixon, his wife Alfreda Burke and pianist Susann Lemberskaya shared the stage at Ogden Hall on July 20, 2007. The recital was the first program at Hampton University to be part of the Todi Music Fest. The program, titled "Following in the Footsteps..." celebrated the history of Ogden Hall. This historic venue has been graced by many famous performers. Brief introductions to the life and career of Roland Hayes, Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson and Leontyne Price were given. The singers picked a spiritual they thought represented each. The program opened with a duet Where the music comes from by Lee Hoiby (b.1926). Mr. Dixon's floated pianissimo was most impressive. This singing actor who played Tonio in last summer's Todi Fest Daughter of the Regiment is Lensky in this year's Eugene Onegin. He starred on Broadway in Ragtime and was one of the Three Mo' Tenors.
Solo he sang Schubert's Rastlose Liebe (Restless Love) and a gentle, delicate Sister Mary Had-a but one Child by Roland Hayes. Ms. Burke captured the inherent mystery in Alban Berg's (1885-1935) song Nacht - the mystery of being alone in the forest at night. She took a gentle approach to Give Me Jesus credited to Edward Boatner (1898-1981) as she honored Marian Anderson's recital before 75,000 listeners on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1939. Ms. Anderson was denied use of Constitution Hall because of the color of her skin by the Daughters of the American Revolution who owned it. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the DAR and arranged for this historic performance, symbolizing the next step in the emancipation of Black artists in America.
Ms. Lemberskaya at the Steinway was an equal partner, adding support to these powerful voices. Her challenge was increased by a piano that is in great need of refurbishing.
Included in the program was a lengthy chunk of Peter I. Tchaikovsky's (1840-1893) one act opera Iolanta, the story of the medieval King René of Provence and his blind daughter Iolanta. So she would not be upset by her handicap he forbade anyone telling her about sight - she thinks eyes are for tears only. The Duke of Burgundy (bass) comes for a visit and brings Count Vodemon (tenor) with him. In the garden he and Iolanta fall in love. Sung in Russian by Mr. Dixon, his song of denial, Nyet! Chary lask krasy m'atezhnaj (No, the charming attentions of a spirited beauty tempt me not) is followed by Ms. Burke's Atchevo eta prezhde ne znala (Why until now have I not shed tears, not known feelings of longing or sorrow?). In the third selection, a dialogue between the lovers, Nu, shto zhe? ...Tvajo malchan'je nepan'atna (Well, come on!...I do not understand your silence), he learns she does not know what sight and light are. She feels a new happiness at his attention. They are interrupted by King René who declares that Vodemon must die if her sight is not restored. It is and they are betrothed.
There was emotional validity in Mr. Dixon's pleading tone in the first selection and in Ms. Burke's increasing upset when he does not speak to her in the second. The powerful singing in the dialogue was lovely but did not have the necessary nuance to make the characters real.
The program ended with the singers telling of how they encouraged each other to audition for the 1995 revival of Showboat in Chicago. They got the jobs, fell in love all over again on stage as they sang Make Believe, Why Do I Love You? and You are Love.They chose Tonight from Bernstein's West Side Story to end the show.
I have a problem with how the theme of the program was represented. The selections chosen to honor Black musical pioneers misrepresents their accomplishments. Singing spirituals, which they all did, is not the essence of the legacy they offer students today. African-American singers kept alive a choral tradition of spirituals in America for several hundred years. By the 1890's Harry T. Burleigh began writing down spirituals for a solo singer and piano.
Roland Hayes (1887-1977) single-handedly broke the color line in classical vocal concert music. He built a career by insisting that a Black man was equally capable of singing Brahms, Schumann and Beethoven in his recitals to white audiences as he was of singing spirituals, though he had to go to Europe to launch his career. Once he was successful there he received acceptance by a classical white audience in America. He may be heard on The Art of Roland Hayes, Smithsonian Collection of Recordings, RD 041.
Paul Robeson's signature tune was Old Man River by Jerome Kern. Though he began his musical with a recital of spirituals to Black audiences across the U.S., he too had to go to Europe to make his mark. In London he was a great success as the first Black man to play Othello in Shakespeare's play. Always before, white actors had played Othello in blackface. With the emphasis on Russian music in this program the monologue from Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov would be more his style. In time his recitals included world folk music as well. Look for Paul Robeson Live at Carnegie Hall, The Historic May 9, 1958 Concert, Vanguard, VCD-72020.
Marian Anderson could well be represented by an aria from Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera or Il Trovatore. In 1955, sixteen years after her Lincoln Memorial concert, she was hired by Rudolf Bing, a European, to sing a major role at New York's Metropolitan Opera, the first Black to perform on that stage.
Leontyne Price did sing Ride on King Jesus but she was a pioneer by being the reigning diva at the Metropolitan Opera for many years and the great Verdi soprano of the mid twentieth-century. How about an art song by Samuel Barber? He wrote Hermit Songs for her and accompanied her on the piano.
With dignity and great determination, what these pioneers accomplished is that we no longer see musical performance divided by color. To honor these great African-American artists, a superb performance is the way it is done best. I'll give Roland Hayes the last word: "If they praise your technique that is no compliment. That means you didn't move them. No, singing isn't a recreative art. You don't create, you stir up the atmosphere so people can feel those things common to all of us."
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