Monday, August 6, 2007

"What a mighty God; Spirituals and gospels for chorus" by Dominique-René de Lerma


Dr. Dominique-René de Lerma is an oboist and musicologist who has been a Professor of Music and a prolific author for more than half a century. For the past four decades he has specialized in Black classical music. The review of the series of four CDs appears in the August 2007 eNewsletter of the Myrtle Hart Society and is used by permission of its Founder/Director, Rashida Black, an African American harpist. The eNewsletter is free and may be requested by E-mail to

Witness, the soul of American music

By Dominique-René de Lerma; Part 3 of 4

What a mighty God; Spirituals and gospels for chorus
VocalEssence Ensemble; Philip Brunelle, conductor; liner notes by Dominique-René de Lerma; texts; series note; performer bios.

Abels, Michael. What a might God. Moore by Four; VocalEssence Chorus; Sanford Moore, piano; Joe Pulice, drums; Gordon Johnson, double bass. (4:14).
Adelmann, Dale. Swing low, sweet chariot. Steve Burger, baritone. (3:27).
Burleigh, Harry T. My Lord, what a morning. (3:40).
Dennard, Brazeal W. Hush! Somebody's calling my name. Yolanda Williams, soprano. (4:40).
Hailstork, Adolphus. Crucifixion. (5:14).
Hairston, Jester. In dat great gittin' up mornin'. Yolanda Williams, soprano. (3:03).
Halloran, Jack. Witness. Sigrid Johnson, conductor. (3:27).
Harris, Robert A. Go down, Moses. Yolanda Williams, soprano. (5:12).
Hogan, Moses. Elijah rock. (3:42).
Moore, Sanford. Go, tell it on the mountain. Robert Commodore, drums; Jay Young, double bass. (5:04).
Moore, Sanford. This train. Moore by Four. (7:39).
Scholz, Robert. Were you there? Brian Link, Tenor. (4:00).
Smallwood, Richard. Jesus, lover of my soul. Moore by Four; Philip Brunelle, piano. (5:22).
Smith, William Henry. Walk together, children. Sanford Moore, piano. (2:33).
Thomas, André. Death is gonna lay his cold, icy hands on me. James Bohn, baritone; Sanford Moore, piano. (3:45).
Thomas, André. Go where I send thee. Michael Morgensen, baritone; Charles Kemper, piano. (3:27).

Non-Black choruses and soloists are either fearless or inhibited when it comes to the performance of spirituals or texts with dialect. Is there any reason why they should avoid this music? If so, then in a parallel situation, a Black singer should avoid German Lieder and Italian opera, but what a loss it would be had Leontyne Price or Jessye Norman followed that restriction! Of course, these ladies had to deal with diction in the foreign language, but that is an obligation every singer must face. It is not a linguistic barrier facing the non-Black singer when the repertoire is enriched, it is political. Jessye Norman's French is so flawless that she was called on to participate in the 200th anniversary of the French revolution, and no protest was registered to my knowledge from France, which has a very strong protectionist policy about its culture.

Brunelle's singers face the dialect straight on, and replicate the sonority of a fine Black college chorus. So also do the singers from St. Olaf, guided by Dr. Anton Armstrong.

The question arises about the setting of a traditional spiritual by one who is not Black, and that is exemplified in a few instances with this recording, but a critical listener would be no more able to identify those composers than one can signal the gender of a composer by the sound of the music.

Of course, we are blessed by the masterful settings of such classic figures as Burleigh (his My Lord might well be the most marvelously performed work here), Hairston, and the more recent figures such as Thomas, Dennard, Hailstork, and Harris. The gospel element enters with the performances of Moore by Four, a well-established ensemble, although some might feel this idiom is in strange company here.

Bach's Sheep may safely graze is merged with Jesus, love of my soul, a gospel synthesis so often beautifully performed in recital by the late Pearl Williams-Jones.

But who is Michael Abels? We first encountered his work in Detroit some years back, when Global warming heralded the emergence of a quite gifted young man. We do not even yet have a proper perspective on his output, where are found pieces for children performers and now he appears in gospel guise. One yearns to have him better represented on recordings.

1 comment:

Suzanne G. said...

I think that a white artist's hesitance to perform idiomatic text in spirituals stems from a wish to not make a caricature of the dialect and therefore the people. It's a very tricky business eventhough African-American culture is our (all American's) own.