The sound of America Ensemble to sing history-rich spirituals at BGSU
Written by DAVID DUPONT Sentinel Arts & Entertainment Editor
Thursday, 21 February 2013 09:51
The American Spiritual Ensemble's musical roots run deep.
|American Spiritual Ensemble conducted by Dr. Everett McCorvey performs Saturday at BGSU. (Photo courtesy American Spiritual Ensemble/Jonathan Palmer)
Born in slavery, the spirituals became the song of freedom.
The music not only "tells America's story," said the ensemble's director and founder Dr. Everett McCorvey, "It is part of America's history ... It's not until the spirituals came that America began to find its voice."
Yet this "mother" of the American sound, a sound from which the blues and jazz and all the styles that sprang from them, "was starting to get lost."
That's why in 1995 he founded the American Spiritual Ensemble, drawing on the voices of African-American opera singers.
"I wanted to make sure this music stayed alive in our American culture," he said in a recent telephone interview. "I wanted to create a group to celebrate the American Negro spiritual."
McCorvey will conduct the ensemble in a Festival Series concert Saturday at 8 p.m. in Kobacker Hall on the Bowling Green State University campus. Tickets are $12 to $38. Call (419) 372-8171 or visit www.bgsu.edu/arts.
McCorvey said he felt that the spirituals were being confused with gospel music, a much later iteration of African American church music.
Gospel music arose when jazz and blues musicians, most notably Thomas "Georgia Tom" Dorsey, started playing in churches bringing those rhythms and harmonies to worship. At first pastors objected until they realized that young people were now flocking to church.
The spirituals were born centuries before "in the slave fields and cotton fields of the south," he said. Cut off from their native cultures, the Africans brought to America "had to assimilate a whole new way of communicating," he said.
"They found it in the churches of the slave masters. They identified with the characters in the Bible. They felt if these characters in the Bible were able to survive difficult circumstances, they as slaves would be able to survive. ... From the hymns and stories they fashioned their own style of music that helped them get through the days as they worked in the fields."
Some of the songs contained code that they could use to communicate aspirations and plans for seeking freedom, McCorvey said.
After emancipation, the music entered the concert halls, first under the auspices of the Fisk Jubilee Singers.
Later performers, including Marian Anderson, sang them from concert stages around the world, even as they were blocked from performing on the major stages in their home countries.
McCorvey's approach is to engage opera singers and then have new arrangements with four-, five-, even six-part harmonies. "The sound is just indescribable," he said.
These choral pieces are interspersed with solo performances.
Because of the experience of the singers, the ensemble also performs some jazz and Broadway tunes as well. "All highlight the black experience," McCorvey said.
The director draws on a roster of a 100 singers to put together a touring ensemble of 20 to 25 performers.
All are freelance vocalists, who have credits including appearances at the Metropolitan Opera, Chicago Lyric Opera, San Francisco Opera and City Opera of New York as well as Broadway.
Whenever he posts a notice that he's organizing a tour, he hears back that singers are eager to come along.
"It's more than a tour, it's a calling," he said. The ensemble is like a family. "It's good for the soul."
He added: "One of the things that we find all over the country, when we sing, when people know this history, there's an amazing sense of pride.
"People of all races feel that pride," he said. "This is America's music."