`Let My People Go' instructs and inspires

Music Column

October 31, 2006|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,Sun music critic

For a lot of people, and for a lot of good reasons, American music starts with jazz. For me, it starts generations earlier, with spirituals, those songs of prayer and solidarity that emerged from the bleakness of slavery.

There is something disarmingly profound and powerful in the uncomplicated melodies and chord progressions of traditional spirituals. I can be as moved by, say, "There is a Balm in Gilead" or "Were You There" as by the most lyrical vocal works of Schubert or Verdi or Strauss.

Spirituals lost ground against gospel music a long time ago - too old-fashioned, I guess - but they can never lose their emotional truths or their fundamental American-ness. They are the deepest songs of our earth.

They speak directly to our history, too, a connection emphasized Sunday afternoon at Morgan State University's Murphy Fine Arts Center in the Baltimore premiere of an ambitious, 90-minute work from 2003 called Let My People Go: A Spiritual Journey Along the Underground Railroad.

Donald McCullough, music director of the Master Chorale of Washington, constructed this piece using his own arrangements of spirituals and a script by Denny Clark that provides context. The script focuses on the role spirituals played not just in expressing the religious values of slaves, but also in conveying coded messages about freedom in general, specific escape routes in particular.

This presentation, officially the season opener for the Baltimore Choral Arts Society, was too big for one ensemble. Joining Choral Arts and its director, Tom Hall, were the Morgan State University Choir and director Eric Conway, and the Baltimore City College Concert Choir and director Linda R. Hall.

The three leaders took turns conducting the intermissionless score, which also employed four vocal soloists, two narrators and an African drummer.

Any mix of spoken word and music can be problematic; at some point, each component is likely to distract from the other. Personally, I could have lived with less talk in Let My People Go, but the text imparted a good deal of important and fascinating information about escapes from slavery, successful and tragic.

Sonja Sohn and Larry Gilliard Jr., seasoned actors from the HBO series The Wire, delivered the words in remarkably vivid fashion, getting deep into character for excerpts from first-hand histories. (Too bad the amplification tended to distort whenever the volume rose.)

Musically, the rewards began with McCullough's richly textured arrangements and continued with the superbly responsive articulation of the combined choruses, which hit a compelling height in a sizzling "Didn't My Lord Deliver Daniel."

The stellar solo efforts included soprano Janice Chandler-Eteme's exquisitely molded "Run to Jesus," mezzo Marietta Simpson's burnished sound and straight-from-the-heart phrasing in "Guide My Feet" (capped by a spiraling cadenza), and tenor Rodrick Dixon's plangent "Steal Away." Every contribution by baritone Vincent Dion Stringer lit up the place as well.

A remarkably instructional and inspirational afternoon.

A cute, cozy `Cosi'

Six years ago, Opera Vivente updated Mozart's adult comedy Cosi fan tutte to 1950s Havana. To open its ninth season, Baltimore's dynamic chamber-sized company revisited the work, but this time gave it more traditional, 18th- century trappings. The result was a very comfortable fit, theatrically and musically.

Director John Bowen, who also provided the deft English translation, had his youthful cast carrying out comic bits with aplomb, sobering moments with considerable sensitivity, Saturday night at Emmanuel Episcopal Church (the final performance).

There were enough unexpected bits to give the staging an extra jolt, but I could have done without Bowen's addition of a noisy dinner party scene acted out during the overture. A cute set by Paul Christensen and pleasant costumes by Norah Worthington completed the picture.

As Fiordiligi, Amanda Grooms proved to be a real find. Her voice was not just pretty, but sure, flexible and capable of considerable warmth. Jessica Renfro made a vibrant and, at one particularly amusing point, nearsighted Dorabella. Erica Cochran was the sparkly Despina.

Ken Gayle, as Ferrando, sang with a limited tonal palette, but embellished his Act 1 aria elegantly. John Dooley offered lithe acting and colorful singing as Guglielmo. Christopher Austin made an effective Alfonso, except when pushing to get more volume out of his slender baritone. The chorus did efficient work.

Although an AWOL horn player necessitated some unexpected re-arranging of the score, the small ensemble of period instruments that remained fleshed out the music quite nicely, led from the harpsichord by Joseph Gascho. He didn't always keep everyone together, but his tempos felt right and his phrasing revealed plenty of sensitivity to the lyrical richness of the score.

tim.smith@baltsun.com

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