NSU Choirs


Norfolk State University Hosts Kevin Maynor
in "The Spiritual: An Underground Railroad"

Kevin Maynor is a tall, handsome man with a deep bass voice who has a successful career as an opera singer and recitalist. Mr. Maynor's stage production titled "The Spiritual: An Underground Railroad" was performed by the forty-piece Southeastern Arts Association Orchestra conducted by Dr. Geraldine T. Boone, the fifty-voice Maynor Community Chorus of Hampton Roads directed by Patricia Saunders Nixon and pianist Eric Olsen accompanying Mr. Maynor as solo vocalist. With the impressive lineup of performers we expected an excellent experience.

Anticipation for the program was high as a moderate crowd gathered at L. Douglas Wilder Performing Arts Center on Sunday evening, October 28, 2007. The program was sponsored by the Southeastern Virginia Arts Association (SEVAA), a group that works in the African-American community. For twenty-four years they have sponsored a summer arts workshop for children and youths, helped talented young students with scholarships and have initiated and co-sponsored numerous arts performances. This program was an opportunity to raise funds for these projects. Mr. Maynor gave the gift of his time and talent.

There were videos projected on the proscenium wall and sets of three or four spirituals interspersed with readings. Mr. Maynor's melodious reading voice sounds like the famous bass civil rights pioneer Paul Robeson. But unlike Paul Robeson, who promoted the notion that all men are brothers, during this performance Mr. Maynor acted the angry, vengeful persona of Nat Turner, a role he created in the opera of the same name, composed by Michael Raphael.

There is an important story to be told about the Underground Railroad but this program did not tell it. The compromise of the American founding fathers so we could have a united United States allowed slavery to continue. But the yearning in the human soul to live in personal freedom is very strong. This led to the Civil War. Almost one hundred-fifty years later the fallout of slavery is still with us.

The readings and videos ranged from information about tribal culture in Africa, to an emotionally evocative story about a child held in a cellar and abused, to lynching in the South in the mid-twentieth century. The only thing mentioned about the Underground Railroad was the heroine Harriet Tubman who escaped slavery in Maryland and returned to the South to bring many other slaves North at great personal peril.

The Underground Railroad was a loosely organized group of white people, mostly Quakers, who saw the evil of slavery and set out to facilitate the escape of slaves whom they assisted in getting to the northern states. After the Fugitive Slave Law was passed in 1850 the destination was Canada, because northern states could no longer protect runaway slaves form bounty hunters who got paid to return them to the south.

When I lived in Ohio a friend had purchased a house in Ironton, near the Ohio River, that had been part of the Underground Railroad. Kentucky, a slave state was on the other side of the river. The house had a hidden chamber where escaping slaves could hide and rest before continuing their journey north. He was working to get it placed on the National Register of Historic Places. I have also visited Harriet Tubman's little house near Seneca Falls and Canandaigua, New York in the Finger Lakes region where she lived out her years after Emancipation.

There is one famous song that comes from the Underground Railroad, Follow the Drinking Gourd, that spells out how to find freedom. The Big Dipper constellation with the handle pointing to the North Star is the drinking gourd. This song and others from the Underground Railroad were not in the program.

The performance was a showcase for Mr. Maynor's talent as an actor and vocalist. Taking a bow each time he came on stage and after every song, the advertised 90 minute program stretched into three tedious hours. There was no central theme and no message of hope for the future. The music was well performed but it did not touch my heart and left me wondering why these particular songs and video clips had been brought together.

The second half of the program was made up of songs composed by Michael Raphael (b.1962). Loosely based on material from traditional spirituals and hymns, these arrangements had a pop/gospel sound.

Traditional spirituals express the great suffering of the people who were held as slaves. The discrimination against people of color that has followed since must be commemorated. It is unfortunate that this program was mis-titled. The Underground Railroad was a positive collaboration of black and white people working together. And working together is the way forward.

Norfolk State University Choirs
Winter Concert at Christ and St.Luke's

The forecast for snow had to be weighed against our desire to hear the Norfolk State University Choirs sing. They were highly recommended by our musical friend David Kunkel, conductor of Symphonicity, who worked with the choirs last season. So on the cold, raw evening of January 29, 2010, still in shock from the recent death of Lisa Relaford Coston, hoping that music would help heal the wound, we ventured out to hear a concert sponsored by the Fine Arts Guild of Christ and St. Luke's Church.

As the opening pieces were presented by the NSU Concert Choir we realized that we had made the right decision. The seventy-seven voices blended in selection after selection creating an irresistable wave of sound that enraptured us with a powerful, all-encompassing intensity. With clear diction and crisp endings most of the singers sang from memory with precision in the ever-shifting small groups of voices within the choir .

A Latin text set by William Byrd (1543-1623) was followed by Jean Berger (1909-2002) Brazilian Psalm, a psalm of praise from the Holy Bible in English with a modern musical language that displayed the balanced sound of the inner groups of voices. Contrasts of loud/soft and acceleraton/deceleration were glorious to hear, all with the intensity of an approaching freight train. The group was led by Conductor Dr. Carl W. Haywood and accompanied by Terry W. Butler with tenor DeAndrew Jackson as soloist.

As the piece ended many members of the choir left the chancel, leaving behind the NSU Chamber Choir of fifty-six singers conducted by Mr. Butler with Dr. Haywood as pianist. They sang three selections. Mendelssohn (1809-1847) There Shall a Star with male voices opening, tells of the arrival of the Wise Men, building layer-upon-layer of glorious sound and ends with a beautiful piano postlude. Mr. Jackson was joined by soprano Tomasina Hill and baritones Brion Humphrey and James Riddick. In Latin, Lux Aeterna, set by Brian Schmidt (b.1980), begins with an even, sustained sound by the female voices soon joined by the men in this restrained chant. High soprano descants create highlights in the lovely, quiet singing. A setting by Los Angeles composer Albert McNeil (b.?) of O Mary, Don't You Weep has a restrained, rich sound in motion. The soprano soloist was Ericah Brickers.

The Concert Choir reconstituted and sang fine chruch hymns: Come Unto Me by Harry Burleigh (1866-1949) and Make a Joyful Noise by Reginald Parker (b.?) with an organ opening. This modern, dramatic piece with great slicing crescendos contrasted by an otherworldly filigree of delicate voicings was one of my favorites of the evening.

After intermission we heard the third group in this three-in-one choir, the NSU Spartan Chorale with twenty-one singers led by Dr. Haywood. In Latin they sang Peter Philips (1560-1628) a cappella setting of O Beatum in Sacrosanctum as a madrigal, no long musical lines, no legato lines, all crisp, short syllables with Mr. Butler accompanying at the piano. Next they offered Fare Thee Well, Love by James Mulholland (b.1935). This song, with lovely legato sound, demonstrated another facet of this crack vocal group's great skill. The soloist was Quinton George with an Irish tenor sound with great crooner potential. They topped their set with the madrigal Everyone Sang from the choral cycle Winging Wildly by Kirke Mechem (b.1925). A bright, quick tune, it had vocal pyrotechnics that sparkled all the way down to the deep bass notes that ended the musical phrases.

The final set was the entire NSU Concert Choir in Rachmaninov's (1873-1943) Glory be to God on High with vocal sound clusters that build one on the other. Set by Jester Hairston (1901-2000) Great God A'Mighty opens with bass voices like a great hammer striking. In An' I Cry, set by Noah F. Ryder (1914-1964), a river of sound washed over me as they sang three verses: "Sometimes I feel like I've never been born again," "My Savior died in vain," and "I lost my soul again." It is all resolved in the next song I'll Stand set by Raymond Wise (b.1961) when the rhetorical question of “anyone here that will stand for the master?” is answered by playful, ever-changing clusters of voices singing “I'll Stand” creating a most happy feeling. A song by Randall Thompson (1899-1984) in memory of “our friend” Lisa Relaford Coston closed the program.

There were two CD's available for purchase but you must hear this group live to fully appreciate them. It is an unforgettable experience and the CD's help me recall just how wonderful they are live. The CD titles: Songs of Our Weary Years, Beloved Spirituals and Motets, Anthems, Spirituals and Gospels! all sung by NSU Concert Choir with several selections in settings by Dr. Haywood.

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