Making a Spirituals Connection

Ensemble shows broad influence of Negro Spirituals on music

Feb 15, 2011 at 2:06 pm

America’s musical heritage starts with Negro Spirituals, says Dr. Everett McCorvey, founder and director of the internationally acclaimed American Spiritual Ensemble.

“I call Spirituals the mother music, an art form truly founded in this country,” he says.

American Negro Spirituals are one of American history’s great ironies. “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “Go Down, Moses” and “The Battle of Jericho” are among the world’s most beloved melodies, created in the harsh, degrading reality of slavery. We love these songs, but do we really know them.

The ASE (featured prominently in a 2007 PBS special on the art form) aims to set us straight. The ensemble, made up of classically trained singers, makes its first Cincinnati performance Tuesday with a free concert at downtown’s St. Peter in Chains Cathedral. But Dr. McCorvey advises against expecting Gospel numbers.

“Spirituals and Gospel are different,” McCorvey explains. “People don’t know that Gospel music is a 20th-century phenomenon. Spirituals have been around for hundreds of years. I realized that audiences didn’t know the difference, and that’s why I started the ASE in 1995.”

It took Czech composer Antonin Dvorak to recognize the future of American music was in Negro Spirituals, as well as Native American melodies. Dvorak came to the U.S. in 1892 to establish an American conservatory. Thanks to the pioneering work of his assistant, African-American musician Henry T. Burleigh, Dvorak learned a wealth of Negro Spiritual melodies (including the “Going Home” theme used in “New World Symphony”). As more African Americans were permitted to attend conservatories, thousands of songs were transcribed and fashioned into the arrangements heard today, McCorvey says.

Those arrangements will be performed by 29 singers, all conservatory-trained with impressive opera and musical theater credits. During January and February, the singers take a break from their schedules to tour with ASE. An accomplished tenor, McCorvey (head of the University of Kentucky’s Opera Department) has performed throughout the U.S., Europe and Asia. He tapped an extensive network of colleagues and students to form the ASE in 1995.

“They were all excited about this mission I had and they jumped on board,” McCorvey says. “Now, we hold annual auditions in New York.”

The singers’ bios show an awesome range of experiences, from major opera and musical theater stages to residencies and teaching work.

The group performing in Cincinnati includes tenor John Wesley Wright, a CCM alum; Sam Skelton, who has one of the leads in “The Lion King”; and Caren Slack, who recently debuted at the Met.

“When these voices combine,” McCorvey says, “it’s quite an amazing experience.”

One such amazing experience led to the ASE’s Queen City debut. Retired CCM professor Phillip Crabtree, now an artist rep for Alkahest Artists (which represents the ASE), took Hyde Park Community Methodist Church pastor Don Dixon to hear the ASE in Lexington.

“Don’s been involved with the African-American community for years,” Crabtree says, “and he was so moved by this concert that he had to make it happen in Cincinnati.”

The goal, Crabtree says, was “celebrating our diverse community and offering this as a free concert.” Dixon’s efforts enlisted support from 20 organizations, from churches to educational and community institutions. It’s a first for the ASE, and McCorvey applauds the initiative as a “creative and inclusive way of generating support for the arts.”

ASE’s program alternates traditional spirituals, sung unaccompanied, with soloists and smaller ensembles. In the second half, the influence of Spirituals is heard in Classical and musical theater songs. According to Crabtree, no one waits until a song is finished to applaud.

“Audiences are on their feet, jumping up and down,” he says.

A recent review in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune ran with the headline, “An Explosion of Joy Rocks the Sarasota Opera House.”

A performance on Feb. 23 will be “an even bigger deal,” according to Crabtree, when the ASE performs for 700 students at Western Hills University High School, with an afternoon performance workshop for CCM students in CCM’s Werner Recital Hall.

Dr. McCorvey’s goal is to give every audience member an awareness of the Spiritual’s historic place in our musical lives.

“It’s important for us to know that Spirituals are not just Negro, they are American music,” he says. “So much spawned off from Spirituals — Jazz, Gospel, Blues, even American musical theater, especially Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. It’s important that (the Ensemble) maintain and celebrate that music by not mixing it with other forms, like Gospel. There’s certainly a place for it, but there’s a difference. And it’s that difference that we want to preserve.”

THE AMERICAN SPIRITUAL ENSEMBLE performs at St. Peter in Chains Cathedral Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. Admission is free.