Morgan raises curtain on key

Review: University choir and BSO give new center a real workout, hailing Hailstork and successful fight for civil rights.

February 16, 2002|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

These are heady times for Maryland campuses, artistically speaking. No sooner did the University of Maryland put the finishing touches on its new Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center in College Park than Morgan State University unveiled its Carl J. Murphy Fine Arts Center in East Baltimore. Both places boast classy concert halls that many a big city would covet.

The Murphy Center's Gilliam Concert Hall got its first large-scale workout on Wednesday from the Morgan State University Choir and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. The occasion was devoted to a single composer, Adolphus Hailstork, and a single theme, the struggle for civil rights and the celebration of African-American pride.

It will take more listening and a more varied repertoire to get the full acoustical measure of the space, but this experience left a generally positive impression. The hall seems tailor-made to the school's justly famed choir; the voices emerged from the rear of the stage with sometimes startling clarity and impact, even when heard in the upper balcony.

Curiously, the choristers' voices were amplified in one selection. I suspected electric enhancement at other points, but was told it was just to that single usage.

From a seat on the main floor, the orchestra didn't come through as vividly as the choir. From the balcony, there was more presence and a smooth balance, but still not an ideal fullness. In particular, the string tone seemed a little muted.

The main item on the concert was Hailstork's 45-minute oratorio Done Made My Vow, which provided a fervent complement to Black History Month. The work suffers from structural diffuseness and a problematic case of anticlimax. The narration, with words by the composer and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., reaches its emotional peak with the closing sentences of King's "I Have a Dream" speech.

Those words scream out "finale," but Hailstork places them midway through the score. The music that follows cannot compete, although a haunting appearance of the spiritual This Little Light of Mine certainly helps. Imagine Aaron Copland's Lincoln Portrait going on after the "of the people, by the people, for the people" line, instead of drawing triumphantly to a close.

For all of its earnestness, sensitive vocal writing and vibrant orchestration, Done Made My Vow is too long, too meandering and too musically cliched for its own good. By contrast, the cantata I Will Lift Up Mine Eyes gets more mileage out of more succinct material. It's an affecting piece with a contagious spirit of faith and hope.

If the BSO occasionally sounded as if it were on auto-pilot during the program, the choir was in its element, singing with terrific commitment and expressive nuance under longtime director Nathan Carter in Shout for Joy and I Will Lift Up Mine Eyes, and under conductor David Lockington in Done Made My Vow.

Soloists for the oratorio included NAACP president Kweisi Mfume, who spoke the words in the rich tones and musical cadences of a seasoned preacher; and soprano Janice Chandler, who spun out golden threads of song. In I Will Lift Up Mine Eyes, tenors TaVonne Hasty and Issachah Savage offered intensely communicative phrasing.

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