Carter unlocked inner voices

Choir leader's death leaves cultural void


July 17, 2004|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Lord, I keep so busy servin' my Master, ain't got time to die.

`Cause when I'm givin' my all, I'm servin' my Master. Ain't got time to die.

Those words from a vintage spiritual could sum up the life of Nathan Carter, who gave his all in the service of music and young musicians for 34 years as director of the Morgan State University Choir. His death on Thursday from pancreatic cancer at the age of 68 leaves a void in Baltimore's cultural life that can't really be filled.

You only had to hear his choir once, even just a few minutes' worth of the passion and precision he drew from those singers, to understand his value. Carter didn't make music, he ignited it. If you could have harnessed the spark he got out of college kids, many of them with little musical training, you could have lit the entire city.

To a large extent, a choir is only as good as its director. Voices have to be trained, molded, coaxed, finessed, blended. Carter fulfilled these technical duties with unusual skill.

The real test for any choristers, though, is not how they articulate, but how they interpret the notes, not how they sing from the vocal cords, but from the heart. Carter had an uncanny ability to unlock that inner voice in singers, the one that can reach out and touch a listener -- in any country.

During what turned out to be the last of its many international trips with Carter, the Morgan Choir wowed audiences early this year in one of Russia's most historic venues, Philharmonia Hall in St. Petersburg. The occasion was the International Winter Festival Arts Square, founded by conductor Yuri Temirkanov, an avid fan of the Morgan singers since first working with them in a 2002 Baltimore Symphony all-Gershwin program at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.

Temirkanov invited the choir to Russia to repeat that program with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic and also give a separate concert on its own. Temirkanov noted that no African-American choral group had ever performed in that city before, and he was sure that the public would welcome this one warmly --an understatement.

The Russians went wild. After the concert of Porgy and Bess selections with the Philharmonic, the ovations shook the place, with the loudest roar let loose when Temirkanov called Carter out for a solo bow.

The next night, you could see people hanging on every note when Carter led the choir in a program of spirituals and classics, including an exquisitely molded selection from Rachmaninoff's Vespers sung in Russian and learned for the occasion. The sound those singers produced -- seamless, sumptuous, soulful -- matched the regal beauty of the hall.

It was the same sound Baltimore audiences had long known and loved, the sound that characterized performance after performance, emerging in seemingly effortless fashion at the slightest move of Carter's hand, or even a mere glance.

(He was not a showy, windmill conductor onstage, arms flailing about. Which is not to say he didn't have a showman streak. He was known for wonderfully eye-catching concert attire. In St. Petersburg, he beamed at the crowd as he walked slowly onstage like an aristocrat from Catherine the Great's court in his snazzy outfit of white ruffles and subtly sequined tails.)

Every time I heard the Morgan Choir -- regrettably, not often enough during my few years in Baltimore -- I was struck by its expressive intensity. That visceral quality was a built-in attribute, thanks to Carter, who didn't have to be in front of the singers to unleash it. He handed over to any other conductor an ensemble expertly prepared and fully committed.

The choir redeemed the BSO's presentation of Beethoven's Ninth back in February, for example, providing an exhilarating kick to an otherwise thoroughly pedestrian interpretation by conductor Bobby McFerrin. And last December, in a gala for the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture, Leslie Dunner reaped the rich benefits of that honing when he conducted the ensemble in Hannibal Lokumbe's challenging African Portraits.

It is impossible to overstate the accomplishments of the Morgan State University Choir during Carter's tenure.

He ensured that the organization remained an invaluable exponent of the first great musical expressions of African-Americans, traditional spirituals, even though their popularity, especially among the young, had faded over the years. At the same time, his broad tastes yielded a continuing expansion of repertoire -- classical, folk, pop -- so that the choir could never be stereotyped.

He helped singers believe in themselves, even find themselves, with a personal touch that was as genuine as his musical talent. And he led them relentlessly toward the highest ground of artistic quality.

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