SPIRITUAL SONGS: With a brilliant combination of soulful voices, piano and powerful narrations, soprano Kathleen Battle gave meaningful delivery as the audience journeyed along with her on “The Underground Railroad.”
by Patrick D. McCoy
(PHOTO: Soprano Kathleen Battle poses for a formal portrait with “Voices of the Underground” in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall)
Perhaps one of the first times that soprano Kathleen Battle presented her multi-dimensional concert of spirituals “Underground Railroad: A Spiritual Journey” in this area was in 2010 at the Music Center at Strathmore in neighboring Bethesda and again there in 2013. Since then, it has taken on a variety of combinations, now to include impressive narrations from the lives of historic figures such as Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglas and Martin Luther King, Jr. This large-scaled labor of love has been taken across the country by Battle in several iterations since then with several choirs such as the Oakwood University Aeolians, the Norfolk State University Concert Choir and as far as Toronto, Canada with the R. Nathaniel Dett Chorale, just to name a few. On Sunday, it had its hearing in the Concert Hall at The Kennedy Center.
On Sunday before a packed audience in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, soprano Kathleen Battle sang with such feeling as she opened the program with the a cappella spiritual “Lord, How Come Me Here?” Anchored by the impressive ensemble of singers, Battle’s voice was able to waft just slightly above with a presence of angelic radiance. With the repeating of the text “Lord, I wish I never was born” this was where the audience knew from start to finish that they were attending something beyond just a concert, but a spiritual experience. Former Minister of New York’s Riverside Church, Dr. James A. Forbes was among the narrators and gave a dignified presence throughout that set the tone for his other colleagues which included Dr. Dwandalyn R. Reece-Curator of Music and Performing Arts at the National Museum of African American History and Culture and Warren Williams-Manager of Community Relations for the National Symphony Orchestra at The Kennedy Center. Together, their narrations wedded the program together not only for the sake of the music, but also the importance of the subject matter conveyed by the spiritual and its communicative nature.
As the program progressed, it went from a sense of reflective reverence to an expression of pure joy. Much of that joy came from pianist Joel A. Martin, who often times brought his own joyfulness to his playing, which permeated the whole experience. Whether it was a ‘jazzy’ chord or a flashy solo moment-Martin provided that ‘spark’ that also gave buoyancy to Battle’s joy, which was apparent. This especially came through in “Roll, Jordan Roll, and “Go Down Moses” in which there was a more emphatic Battle as she alternated in a call and response as the choir resolutely responded: “Go Down!” One of the trademarks of the artistry of Kathleen Battle is her ability to connect with her audience. In “City Called Heaven” she sang with such care and beauty-releasing the final note on the word ‘home’ like a beautifully, wrapped gift.
Likewise, guest artist, pianist Cyrus Chestnut joined Battle and the Voices of the Underground on several selections. Having also collaborated Battle many times on this project-Chestnut brought his full musical palette to the table-church, concert hall and jazz, all to the astonishment of the audience! It was a full evening of singing from both the ensemble and Battle. Something especially unique to this performance was how generous Battle was to all of her colleagues, especially her young singers in the ensemble. Co-directed by Rachel Blackburn and Stephanie Fisher, Voices of the Underground is composed of young professional artists. Several of them were featured as soloists throughout, including mezzo-soprano Lucia Bradford, whose lush voice often elicited a response from the audience and Andrew Darling, who often tested the bounds between operatic countertenor to soulful church ‘sangin’ to the euphoria of the hall.
Before the program came to a close, Battle addressed the audience in her own words about how this special ‘choir ‘came together this time around and prior to:
“I just want to say something” the soprano said. “So people have been asking me about this ‘so-called choir’ I don’t think this is any choir that I have ever heard. (applause)…I am going to use the term to describe this group as supremely talented and gifted musicians (applause). And how we all came together was last year when I had the invitation to return to a place that I had not been in 22 years.” Battle continued to the applause of the audience: “It was my choice about how, what, when, EVERYTHING. So I put out a call to a group of friends, 6 individuals involved, plus myself….and I asked do you have singers, not talking about a choir, I am talking about singers.” Gesturing over to ‘Voices of the Underground” Battle proudly stated “And this is who showed up!” to great applause by the full house.
After a full evening of superb artistry and collaboration, Battle and ensemble brought down the house with a rousing arrangement of “Ain’t Gon’ Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Roun” by Jacqueline B. Hairston. For the encores, Ms. Battle’s generosity continued as she yielded her first encore to three of the singers from the ensemble. But her final encore of the beloved “Were You There” was a glorious reminder that the evening belonged to her: a singer who continues to possess ‘one of the most beautiful voices in the world.’
A native of Petersburg, Virginia, Patrick D. McCoy is a graduate of Virginia State University and Shenandoah Conservatory in Winchester, Virginia. He has been an arts contributor for Examiner.com, CBS Washington, The Afro American Newspaper and most recently was the Performing Arts Columnist at Washington Life Magazine for whom he interviewed Joshua Bell for the magazine’s arts column “Perfect Pitch.” As a church musician, he currently serves as Organist/Choirmaster at Saint John’s Episcopal Church (Zion Parish) in Beltsville, Maryland and teaches applied voice on the music faculty at Virginia State University. Visit www.patrickdmccoy.com for all of your arts news and send press releases and ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org. He dedicates his musical pursuits to the Glory of God, in loving memory of his mother Velma Ann McCoy-Pulley (1956-2017).