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.
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