Wednesday, December 14, 2011

“Community in Concert: Handel’s 'Messiah' at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem”

[Pictured from left to right: Kelly Hall-Tompkins, Heather Hill, Patrice Eaton, James Davis, Jr., Robert Hughes (Photo courtesy Fredara M. Hadley, Ethnomusicologist, Indiana University)]

On Dec. 1, 2011 AfriClassical posted: "Kelly Hall-Tompkins, Concertmaster of Chamber Orchestra, Handel's 'Messiah,' Abyssinian Baptist Church 7 PM Dec. 2." Aja Burrell Wood is a PhD Candidate at The University of Michigan in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, pursuing her degree within the Ethnomusicology program. She reviews the Dec. 2, 2011 performance of Handel's Messiah at Harlem's Abyssinian Baptist Church.

Community in Concert: Handel’s Messiah at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem
For the third consecutive year, The Abyssinian Baptist Church Cathedral Choir together with Chamber Orchestra performed Handel’s Messiah under the skilled baton of James Davis, Jr. on December 2, 2011 in Harlem, New York. The Friday evening concert featured inspired performances by soloists, choir, and orchestra, who came together to present the magnificence of the sacred oratorio. Which undoubtedly moved the audience.

Throughout the holiday season, performances of Handel's Messiah are sure to be running in churches and concert halls the world over. However, the well-known oratorio as performed at Abyssinian, stood as an outstanding example of the rich history of classical music and sacred-music performances presented in the black church by black classical artists. For example, during the 19th century in America, it was not unusual for black churches to sponsor concerts, host periodic lectures by distinguished vocalists, and even establish music schools in cities such as New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, and DC. Noted musicologist Eileen Southern provides insight about black concert artists and churches during the Harlem Renaissance in her seminal work, The Music of Black Americans: A History:

“The [black] church discovered black talent, fostered its growth by sponsoring recitals, and often paid for advanced study by the talented through fund-raising among the members of the congregation.” (New York, 1971, 3/1997)

Further, mentions of concerts and recitals at the church are frequent in historical sources such as black newspapers and other archived materials related to African American life and church activity. While Abyssinian is certainly not the only historically African American church presenting such a work this season, its strong history is both noteworthy and highly recognized throughout the country.

Abyssinian Baptist Church is one of the most well known historically African American churches and traces its roots to 1808. During the Harlem Renaissance, the church became an important site for religious music and maintained a strong connection to the Harlem gospel tradition. Thus, honoring the historical and cultural significance of Abyssinian, co-curators James Davis, Jr. and Matthew Morrison, with the support of the church and its administration, decidedly employed a professional chamber orchestra featuring musicians of color for the annual performance of Handel’s Messiah. Though such relevance is certainly remarkable, the high quality of musicianship was equally impressive.

Vocalists rendered both a highly artistic and technically proficient performance that created a captivating atmosphere throughout the sanctuary. Soprano Heather Hill delivered soaring and effortless arias, complimented by the dulcet and resonant tone of mezzo-soprano Patrice Eaton. Tenor Robert Hughes’s instrument expressed an amiable, but firm, style throughout the oratorio. Kevin Johnson, baritone, maintained a distinct power and mastery of voice with quite the shining moment during “The trumpet shall sound.” The Cathedral Choir exhibited a great possession of both sensitivity and vigor, while the chamber orchestra played with impeccable precision and pleasing nuances over the duration of the three-part oratorio.

The notable difference in the otherwise “traditional” delivery of Handel’s Messiah was not just what took place on stage, but also the stirring moments that took place in the pews of the sanctuary. Audience members regularly responded in appreciation of the most moving and uplifting moments throughout the concert. Consequently and suitably, signifyin' on the significant. Some may turn up their nose at the thought of such audible responsiveness during a classical performance; however, this is expected and quite valued within the context of the black church. Concert Master, Kelly Hall-Tompkins noted of the experience:

“I was very happy to see how much that music moved and involved people in the audience at Abyssinian. As a child growing up, and still today I like to watch members of the audience during my favorite parts of the music to see if they are as moved as I am by it. In Friday night's performance, I love knowing that even though the audience was comprised of people who regularly attend classical music performances and many who do not, that the audience seemed to really 'get it'- the emotional power and inspiration of that work.

“As a professional violinist and also the founder of a non- profit whose mission is to bring great classical music to those who would not otherwise have access to it, it underscores yet again my core belief that classical music played with passion and a high level of skill can be loved by anyone. It's always powerfully and positively impactful on a performance when artists sense and/or otherwise experience the enthusiasm of the listeners.”

Matthew Morrison, co-curator of the concert observed of the musicians and audience:
“As the co-curator of this event, along with conductor James Davis, Jr., I was most struck by the audience's response to the participating musicians’ desire to render a professional quality performance that also reflected the spiritual and artistic magnificence of Handel's Oratorio. Since the very first rehearsal, the musicians seemed committed to getting the right articulations, bowings, style, etc., in an effort to communicate the power behind the sounds of the Messiah. The choir, orchestra, soloists, and conductor seemed concerned with more than just 'getting it right' for the sake of technical proficiency, but also for the sake of achieving a level of artistic performance that both reaches and uplifts its listeners. This was undeniable during the concert, as the audience--sometimes out of custom of 'classical' concerts--engaged in call-and-response with the performers throughout the almost three-hour work.

“Although this reaction might be uncustomary in some settings, it was a reflection of the exciting exchange between musicians and audience--so moving that audience members (many of whom are aware of 'traditional' concert etiquette) continually responded to the sensitive and high-level performance of Handel's Messiah during the concert. While this might have been frowned upon in other venues in which the Messiah is performed, it was wholly appropriate for the special nature of this event and created a sonic and spiritual energy that resonated throughout the pristine acoustics of Abyssinian's sanctuary.”

Long-standing practices connected to performances of Handel’s Messiah, in particular, were also observed in accordance with established conventions at Abyssinian. Whereas standing during the entire “Hallelujah” chorus is customary, Davis reminded attendees that the tradition upheld at Abyssinian Baptist Church is not to stand until the first coronation “…King of kings.” The Messiah, as performed at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, was an exceptional blend of both African American cultural and Western art music practices that simultaneously preserved key artistic, sacred, and cultural values of both – in concert. In this way, the historical practice of African American churches supporting the work and artistry of black classical musicians seems to still find a place in the 21st century.

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