Mark Gresham | 11 MAY 2021
African-American music is American music. It’s that simple. What we know as American classical music would not be what it is without it. Likewise, African-American classical instrumentalists and singers have an indelible impact upon North American expression of European music, especially the operatic canon, although it has required an observably long road of struggle and pioneering work to achieve equal recognition over many decades.
This past Saturday and Sunday, The Atlanta Opera in collaboration with Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theatre Company presented the Concert for Unity, “a celebration of Atlanta’s diversity through music” as matinee concerts on the final two days of The Atlanta Opera’s pair of evening performances of The Threepenny Carmen and The Threepenny Opera, concluding their spring 2021 season of Big Tent productions.
It was the third of the company’s matinee concert programs, with Saturday’s performance held under the company’s Big Tent at Cobb Energy Centre, and Sunday’s at the Southwest Arts Center, presented by the City of South Fulton Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs.
Created and led by Atlanta native and renowned bass opera singer Morris Robinson, Concert for Unity featured Robinson and noted fellow Black opera singers Joshua Conyers, Ronnita Miller and Jasmine Habersham, accompanied by pianist Damien Sneed, spoken word performance by actor Enoch King, and, not to be overlooked, American Sign Language interpretation of the entire by Marsha Cole Felix and Monique Southerland from Hands in Motion.
King opened the show with a monologue, “Am I as a Black performer” which expressed the emotions of being a Black performing artist: the challenges, the achievements and even the introspective doubt, including the unending question: An I as a Black performer hired (or not) because of their skill and artistry or because of the color of their skin? That served as the prologue for the first part of the program, featuring operatic arias from the European canon and one German art song:
Robinson: “Il lacerato spirito” from Simon Boccanegra (Verdi)
Miller: “Von ewiger Liebe,” No. 1 from Four Songs, Op. 43 (Brahms)
Conyers: “Hai già vinta la causa” from The Marriage of Figaro (Mozart)
Miller: “Pauline’s Song” from The Queen of Spades (Tchaikovsky)
Conyers: “Cruda funesta smania” from Lucia di Lammermoor (Donizetti)
King then performed Macbeth’s soliloquy from Macbeth, Act III Scene 1 (Shakespeare) which led into to the final opera excerpt in the set: Robinson singing “Come dal ciel precipita” from Macbeth (Verdi).
The second part of the program was spirituals plus gospel songs drawn from African-American tradition.
Habersham sang “Let Us Break Bread Together,” a spiritual that likely originated in the Gullah/Geechee cultures that developed along coastal areas of Southeastern colonial America. African American composer John Rosamond Johnson (1873-1954) arranged the first solo version of the spiritual, which was popularized by such notable African American soloists as Paul Robeson, Roland Hayes, and Marian Anderson.
Miller then sang “Give Me Jesus” a traditional American Christian spiritual song was first published in 1845 by Rev. Jacob Knapp, a popular Baptist minister from New York. While the song may not have originated with Black slaves, it was African-American congregations who heavily influenced the song’s modern form and its place in the canon of spirituals.
Conyers sang “Ride On, King Jesus,” a life-affirming song that is sung in church but has become better known through concert performances.
King returned to deliver his third monologue, “Mothers Day Celebration,” a tribute on the eve of the holiday to all mothers and a personal account of his own mother, who only saw him perform once on stage in a high-school production of “Dream Girls: prior to her death, and of the experiences and people he has met over the years who have reminded him that his mother’s spirit has always been with him throughout his life.
Most naturally that led to Miller singing “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” (or simply “Motherless Child”), a traditional spiritual daring back to the era of slavery. The song’s lyrics compares the singer’s feelings of pain and despair to that of a child who has been torn from its mother, while the repetition of the word “sometimes” just might imply at least a glimmer of hope.
“Witness,” sung next by Conyers, is one of those spirituals that often tells a story in a faster, syncopated rhythm, with lyrics portraying characters from the Old Testament who exemplify the overcoming of great tribulations.
For the penultimate number, Robinson was the featured soloists in “Total Praise.” Although tagged as a traditional spiritual in the concert’s supertitles, it is a game-changing contemporary gospel song by Atlanta-born performing artist and songwriter Richard Smallwood. The great “Amen” sequence at the end, in which the entire ensemble joined in, recalls the spirit of elaborate classical “Amen” sequences of classical literature.
At the same time, one is also drawn to think of the many cantatas of J.S. Bach that are built upon isometric versions of Lutheran chorales, not because of style, but because these well known, already-popular tunes were “the voice of the people” upward and outward, in worship, elaborated in a context that was “a level up” from what the congregation themselves could sing (as the late Dr. Christopher Moore, founder of the Chicago Children’s Choir, would often assert). In turn, that leads and lifts up the congregations own singing in worship.
African-American spirituals and their musical descendants are likewise “the voice of the people” upward and outward in their expression. Their performance by accomplished professionals elevates and inspires that populist voice to further lift itself up in song. It’s hard to not join in.
For the grand finale the whole ensemble then sang the gospel song “Amen” (pronounced “AAY-men” not “AAH-men”) which brought all that joyfulness back down to the community, the audience in this case, some of whom clapped or sang along. Although sometimes attributed to the great Jester Hairston (who did arrange it for the film Lilies of the Field starring Sidney Poitier), “Amen” is a bit older, with known recordings going back as far as the one released in January 1949 by the Wings Over Jordan Choir. Origins in the oral tradition before that is not clearly known, but someone’s mama sang it to her children. For sure, and her mother before that.
As the concert ended, I realized it was even more powerful and focused than I had imagined it would be from its promotion. Very impressive in both the solid command over the European repertoire as well as the solid soulful delivery of deep-rooted oral traditions of African-American spiritual song that serves as a cornerstone of our larger unified American experience. ■