Last night, soprano Kathleen Battle performed a concert of spirituals that rang throughout the rafters at The Music Center at Strathmore with the help of pianist Cyrus Chestnut, the Heritage Signature Chorale, and narrator Kweisi Mfume. However, before the concert, Saïs Kamalidiin, Associate Professor of Music and Chair of the Music Department at Howard University, presented a one-hour lecture on the spirituals and their origins. Only a portion of the large audience that turned up for the concert attended the lecture, but Kamalidiin’s interpretations helped make the night more enjoyable.
Kamalidiin informed us that the spirituals have been fading into an art form typically brought out during Black History Month, and replaced with contemporary gospels in the African American churches. Music in the African American culture is always changing, and while the spirituals provided a function during the days of slavery, they are considered outdated to the public, and no longer necessary. If this is truly the case, then it is a sad one, because the music performed last night was gorgeous. Kamalidiin’s words not only taught me about a subject of which I knew little, but helped me realize the importance of the performance I was about to encounter, which made the event even more impressive.
Battle’s pure soprano voice made for a stellar performance. She sang a series of spirituals ranging from “Go Down, Moses” to “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” and infused intense emotion into each song. Her ability to connect with each piece made me believe that despite Kamalidiin’s teachings, the spirituals still have the ability to inspire artists of today.
Two of her numbers in particular that caught my attention were “Fix Me, Jesus” and her encore performance “Were You There?” “Fix Me, Jesus” showcased Battle and the Choir without aid of the piano, and Battle’s relationship with the words brilliantly added to the number. She seemed to open herself up to Jesus, begging him to come down to her aid, and when she turned to the Choir, they responded. The connection between Battle and the Choir members made the performance even stronger.
“Were You There?” was by far Battle’s strongest number. After a long series of performing with the help of extra voices or aid from the piano, she performed this song alone, and a capella. The song allowed me to appreciate the beautiful purity of her voice. With the lack of distractions occurring on stage, her emotional connection seemed more honest, making the performance surreal, and less of a show.
Chestnut’s musical abilities were incredible. He was a joy to watch, and his excitement made it clear that he was having a blast playing the spirituals on stage. Mfume’s narration through excerpts from Frederick Douglas added an important component to the performance. Not only has Mfume clearly missed his calling as an actor, but the excerpts also helped bring us back the original intent of these spirituals, which was to help the slaves. For example, his reading of Douglas’ letter to Harriet Tubman spoke of her importance in helping the slaves. While his efforts were witnessed by many during the day, her only encouragement has come from a few trembling slaves each night, but were still every bit as important. The selections from Douglas connected to Kamalidiin’s lecture. He informed the audience that the spirituals were always about the group; the “we, us, our,” rather than the individual. The spirituals helped many when they were created, which emphasized my favorite aspect of the concert: the choir.
The power of Heritage Signature Chorale added the perfect contrast to Battle’s lighter sounds. “Rockin’ Jerusalem” was purely a choral number without the help of Battle, but left a huge impression. It was a capella, and so the performers could only rely on their voices, but even with this challenge, the song wowed me. Based on the roar of applause that erupted after their booming ending note, I could tell I was not the only audience member with this opinion.
After this number, I felt I better understood Kamalidiin’s message. Battle provides one interpretation of the spirituals, but the choir links back to the original group effect. The spirituals were created in order to inspire groups of slaves, and the intensity of the choir’s performance truly connected to that message.
Last night was an evening to remember. The combination of Battle and the choir members emphasized the idea that the spirituals are not yet lost. They clearly still inspire people of today, I hope that I have the opportunity to witness more incredible performances such as the one I did last night.
Running Time:Approximately Two hours, with one intermission.
Underground Railroad: An Evening with Kathleen Battle played one-night only on May 18, 2013 at The Music Center at Strathmore – 5301 Tuckerman Lane, in North Bethesda, MD. For future events, check their calendar.