While doing research for this column, I visited a book-and-music chain store in metro New York. I asked where I could find recordings of spirituals and books about them.
The clerk, probably twentysomething, was friendly and eager to please. But he didn't understand what I wanted: "What do you mean by spirituals?"
When I explained, he was still unsure where to direct me. Maybe he was just an aberration, but his response worries me. One of our culture's most precious musical treasures is the large body of African American spirituals. Most of them are familiar and have been recorded countless times. Yet there are always fresh ways of presenting them. An excellent example is Mosaic by soprano Angela M. Brown (Albany Records, 2004). Brown is a young opera singer who broke into the big time in 2003 when she replaced an ill colleague for one performance. Since then, she's received rave reviews from critics and audiences.
But all the time Brown was studying opera, she maintained a strong interest in spirituals and performed with the American Spiritual Ensemble. Founded in 1995, this group of singers is devoted to keeping alive spirituals and other music by African Americans.
Its founder and music director is Everett McCorvey, executive producer of Mosaic and director of the opera program at the University of Kentucky, Lexington. You can find out more and order the CD at www.americanspiritualensemble.com.
Brown's voice is dynamic and powerful. But it's not just the vocal quality that distinguishes this CD — it's the striking arrangements of simply voice with piano or guitar. All are almost starkly simple. The result is an unusual clarity that directs your ear straight to the meaning.
Brown joins an impressive group of African American opera stars who have maintained close ties to their more informal musical roots. Others include Kathleen Battle, Jessye Norman, Denyce Graves and Harolyn Blackwell. All have performed and recorded spirituals.
© 2016 Augsburg Fortress, Publishers