Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Dominique-René de Lerma: Seventh program in 'Exploring Music' was given to three singers: Leontyne Price, William Warfield, and Mahalia Jackson.

Leontyne Price (Photo: Jack Mitchell)

Dominique-René de Lerma:

            Bill McGlaughlin's seventh program in Exploring Music  was given to three singers: Leontyne Price, William Warfield, and Mahalia Jackson. As he stated at the start of the show, singers have no need to buy an external instrument, nor have they need for a venue initially to explore their vocal talent as long as there is the church, which is there when the career is begun. But it is not these factors alone that account for the wealth of such talents: There is something either in physiology or culture at play -- maybe both.  And that urge or willingness to communicate emotion in public is a matter to consider.  Ritual and ceremony are also part of the African heritage.  All this unites to augur well for opera, although interests of the music industry seem to hide this (the previous evening brought out major R&B figures at the White House; now it is time for the Obamas, friends, and television audience to hear new stars of the opera or some of the talents discovered and nurtured by the Sphinx Organization!). 
            Our dear Leontyne Price is now 86, years since she dominated Italian opera.  La prima donna di tutte le prime donne, her Met debut reception of more than 40 minutes of cheers, yells, and applause, has never been matched.  And it was a landmark in civil rights.  Justification for this was vividly exemplified in Vissi d'arte -- her distinctive portamento and that superb color of her voice.  She attributed this to "the luxury of being Black."
            I took a Morgan freshman to a performance she gave in New Haven, the tickets kindly provided by Murry Sidlin, who then conducted the orchestra.  Our seats were almost at Price's feet. After the startling performance my enraptured companion went backstage.  When he returned I knew immediately something accounted for the change of his being.  He told me he and Price were alone in the green room.  He stood there before her, dumbfounded and in silent awe.  Finally she asked "Did you enjoy the concert?" He stood there with his mouth open and managed to nod his head slowly. She broke the silence again: "Thank you for coming backstage."  He told me he then turned and walked into the door, never having managed to utter a sound.
            As for Warfield, his performances of P&B and Copland were recorded when he was in good voice -- in great voice.  He admitted very freely that vocal problems surfaced quite soon after that, but no matter, he continued to thrill audiences and students with his warm enthusiasm.  I was able to bring him to Lawrence University within the Ben Holt Memorial Concert Series, not to sing but to narrate Peter and the wolf.  Bill was seated before the orchestra in a big grandfatherly chair, and thrilled the packed hall.  We spent a lot of time informally together during his stay.  Anyone who knew him was treated to an endless train of jokes.  While the cheer for Norfolk State cannot be quoted here, I found his Harlem cheer to be multi-dimensional: Watermelon, barbeque, Cadillac car; we're not as dumb as you think we is!.
            But Mahalia!  She was heard in Ellington's Come Sunday, surely one of the greatest moments in all of music!  This marvelous lady with that richly textured totally ebony sonority!  And as if her realization of the text did not prove her gift for communication, the humming of the out-chorus lives on like the most welcome of ear worms.  After experiencing that, what more can one ever hope for?
            We will see with the eighth program in this most laudable series, with Coleridge-Taylor, Jeffrey Mumford, Robert Sierra, Olly Wilson, and Anthony Davis.
Dominique-René de Lerma

Comment by email:
Dr. MLK and wife Coretta King had a great appreciation for classical music. However, Mahalia Jackson was his favorite singer and Precious Lord Take My Hand his favorite song. Shortly before his assassination on the balcony of the Lorraine hotel, Dr. King request that Precious Lord Take My Hand be performed later that evening.

The intended speech of Dr. King at the March on Washington was a collaboration between Dr. King and his attorney. During the presentation of the speech, Dr. King was in ear distance of Mahalia Jackson. At a point, Mahalia repeatedly shouted MARTIN: tell them about your dream. Mahalia heard Dr. King speak about his DREAM during a speech in Detroit shortly before the March on Washington. Dr. King eventually set the prepared text aside on the podium and spoke extemporaneously to include his his DREAM. The reference to I HAVE A DREAM was not part of the prepared/written text at the podium with Dr. King. If Mahalia had not been there, we would not have what is known as the great I HAVE A DREAM speech.

John [John Malveaux]

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