"Because there is such a wealth of spirituals, it was very… (Baltimore Sun photo by Doug…)
The history of a people, with all the grief, faith and determination that entails, can be heard in the simple strains of spirituals, one of the most enduring and endearing genres of American music. This week, stellar soprano Kathleen Battle will join the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Morgan State University Choir in the premiere of a spiritual-filled program she developed celebrating the Underground Railroad.
No voice in recent times is more associated with this music than Battle's.
The 61-year-old singer has regularly included spirituals in her concerts throughout her career. She has used the gleaming tone, clarity of diction and naturally expressive style that made her an in-demand interpreter of Handel, Mozart and Strauss to equally enriching effect in such gems as "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands," "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" and "Balm in Gilead."
"Wherever and whenever I sing, if there is only one spiritual on a program, people will talk about two things afterward," Battle says from New York with a little laugh, "and one of them will be the spiritual. What I bring to this is the best of my classical training — not all of it. I apply what is appropriate."
Emerging during the slavery era, spirituals became part of the musical DNA of African-Americans.
"My grandfather — my mother's father — was a slave," the Ohio-born Battle says. "He didn't get to talk to me about that, and my mother never talked about it. I don't remember my first encounter with spirituals, but we sang spirituals in Booker T. Washington Grade School, which was all-black. The school felt duty-bound to teach us about our history, our poetry and our music."
Battle speaks of spirituals as feelingly as she sings them.
"They are our aural tradition," she says. "You can find many variations of the verses, which show how they traveled. A word will be changed here and there. Maybe they forgot the original word and inserted a new one that was just as meaningful, or they tailored the verse to the occasion. In spirituals, the talk of heaven and deliverance was code for a better life. 'Crossing the River Jordan' was code, of course, for escaping to freedom."
The Underground Railroad project fits neatly into the BSO's overall theme this season, an examination of the musical roots of diverse cultures.
"We learned that [Battle] was developing this program, and there's a very strong Baltimore and Maryland connection to the Underground Railroad, so this seemed like a natural for us," says BSO president and CEO Paul Meecham. Kendra Whitlock, the BSO's general manager who recently left for a university job, was deeply involved in honing the project with Battle.
The soprano has not appeared with the BSO before. She was presented by the Morgan choir in a recital at the Meyerhoff 16 years ago — Eric Conway, now director of the choir, did chauffeuring duty for her back then — and she sang with that ensemble at the Kennedy Center a few seasons later.
More than 15 spirituals are scheduled for this week's concerts, conducted by Damon Gupton, at Strathmore in Montgomery County and Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. Some will feature orchestral accompaniment, including arrangements freshly prepared for these concerts; others will be sung a cappella — soprano alone, soprano with choir, choir alone. Interspersed will be orchestral pieces, including a work by the excellent Baltimore-based composer James Lee III, and excerpts from the writings of Frederick Douglas read by Kweisi Mfume, former president of the NAACP.
"Because there is such a wealth of spirituals, it was very difficult to choose which ones to include," Battle says. "It has been a case of edit and edit and edit. But I didn't want to miss any of my favorites."
The singer has experienced a few rocky moments during a career that started in the early 1970s — stories of full-diva volatility circulated widely, and wildly, and her firing from the Metropolitan Opera in 1994 for "unprofessional" behavior took its toll. But Battle's artistry has seen her through. She retains a devoted fan base, and as reports from well-received recitals earlier this season in New York and elsewhere affirmed, Battle is still capable of delivering the vocal goods.
That's how Conway heard it last week, when the soprano came to the university campus for her first rehearsal with the ensemble.
"She sang a great deal during the rehearsal," Conway says. "And she's in as good a voice as ever, as beautiful as ever. For the choir it was very, very inspiring. It's all about the music with her. There was no sense of big stardom with her. She just came down to rehearse with the choir."
Battle arrived in Baltimore for that rehearsal by car.