INKPOT#67 CLASSICAL MUSIC REVIEWS: “Black Christmas” – Spirituals in the African-American Tradition (ESS.A.Y)

Spirituals in the African-American Tradition

Behold the Star
Rise Up, Shepherd
Mary Had a Baby
Rockin’ Jerusalem
Glory to the Newborn King
Sister Mary Had-a But One Child
Mary was the Queen of Galilee
Sweet Little Jesus Boy
My Lord, What a Mornin’
Wasn’t That a Mighty Day
Mary Had a Baby
Lit’l Boy (Christ in the Temple)
Glory, Hallelujah
Reign, King Jesus!

Thomas Young tenor Vanessa Ayers mezzo-soprano Robert Mosely baritone
Chorus directed by Ronald Isaac Dinard Smith piano

ESS.A.Y Recordings CD1011
[45’16”] full-price

Includes full texts with translations in English.

by Ng Yeuk Fan

The black slaves comprised diverse African tribes each with its own distinct language and cultural traditions. Upon their capture and transport to a new land, their culture was modified, subjected to pressures in an alien environment and also from influences of the land of their captors. Out of these changes grew the folksong of an epic stature – the “Negro Spiritual”. Alternately bearing the slaves’ burden and his hopes that his Lord would set him free, the Spiritual is a song that ultimately speaks of universal love. Love that “at once binds us together, sets us free, anchors us within ourselves, transports us out of ourselves, rouses and stirs our spirit and brings us peace.” It is a song to take the human being “past consolation and towards light.”

'My Song', by Katy Kianush

Right: “My Song”, by Katy Kianush. Copyright 1992 K. Kianush. This and other paintings by the artist are available from the Art Arena on-line Gallery.

On a casual comment I made regarding the passionate and soulful singing that these native blacks were known for, my friend had this to say, “Theirs is a unique culture… take a whole group of human beings, transplant them onto a foreign land; make them work hard labour and oppress them for hundreds of years – never letting them taste freedom nor wealth… how else can these humans be?”

It is therefore understandable that though more than a century has passed since the abolishment of slavery, the Spiritual has maintained such power and has been established as a unique form and style of music. The songs presented in this recording can nowadays be commonly heard in concert halls throughout the world, in schools, universities and churches. Truly, in the performance of these songs, one is made aware of the cost and the joy of the Spiritual.

If we are a total stranger to these experiences, we can still be aware of these issues historically. Further, this music has a universal appeal and message.

Thomas Young made his New York City Opera debut in the world premiere of X in dual roles created for him by the composer Anthony Davis and is set to return as Aron in Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron. Equally adept at standard operatic repertory and the more esoteric Baroque roles, Young has been made the first artist-in-residence of the Philharmonic Virtuosi (New York).

His is a persuasive tenor voice with a nice bright ring in the top register. Though his chest sound is a bit lacking, his warm tone and sound technique lends authority to these moving Spirituals. Especially so is his rendition of Lit’l Boy – it is sung with much subtlety, caressing the notes, as if he was holding the tiny 12-year-old boy in his arms. Sister Mary Had-A But One Child is inwardly inflective and Young paints a certain stoic loneliness in his voice – aptly measured to evoke the too-quiet manger in which Jesus was born. This is in part helped by the evocative playing of Dinard Smith on the piano.

Young’s exciting account of Glory, Hallelujah captures the jubilation; but the same cannot be said of Rise Up, Shepherd. This song, one which I like very much – having heard one of my good friends sing it in a concert, suffered from inconsistent intonation and occasionally the slang pronunciation on the word ‘follow’ was too distorted, sounding more like ‘farlow’.

Do not think me one of those who would prefer to hear my Spirituals in operatic style with stuffy hard enunciation – in fact, I believe that there is a certain nuance needed in Spiritual singing that only the blacks can truly capture. Whether or not it comes added with the technique of a trained operatic voice is not the issue – I enjoy them both if it is done tastefully.

Vanessa Ayers was a graduate of Juilliard and winner of the Oratorio Society of New York Solo Competition. Her thick voice is distinctly mezzo and is suited to the singing of these soulful spirituals. There is a slight edge at the higher notes and her vibrato can be used occasionally to her disadvantage, however, she turned in convincing accounts of Glory to the New-born King and Wasn’t that a Mighty Day.

Robert Mosely has sung with the Metropolitan Opera and is famous world-wide for his portrayal of Porgy in Gershwin’s only opera, Porgy and Bess. His only contribution in this disc is a tad too long-drawn. One can hear wear in this voice and the wobble is becoming distracting. Despite that, one can still hear a lot of artistry behind this experienced voice – his interpretation of Sweet Little Jesus Boy was gracefully styled.

The soprano solo at the beginning of Mary was the Queen of Galilee deserves particular attention. It is well-paced, emotional and that added to the soulful back-up chorus, which is extremely imaginatively conducted by Ronald Isaac, is one of the most enjoyable songs in the album. The chorus can be heard occasionally off in these difficult arrangements of popular spirituals. The slow spacious arrangements did not benefit much from sound engineering; in fact, the chorus sounded uneven and compressed, and further, the atmosphere is slightly on the cloudy side. Solo voices are well-captured though.

Nevertheless, despite the sound problems, the chorus is always extremely responsive and the small, intense quiet moments are great to relish – the singers manage them with great aplomb, especially in My Lord, what a Mornin’, a stunningly beautiful arrangement sung with great understanding. One can mistake these rocking slow tempos as pale, jaded singing – but no, careful listening will reveal the inner sonorities that must be given a life of their own and one only need to hear Mary Had A Baby on track 11 to know that Ronald Isaac clearly understands the power of these arrangements.

All in all, at first listening, the authentic accents and choral colours were quite a shock to me (an Asian here in Singapore). But on repeated listening, the more important factors creep slowly into your heart – truly music from one soul to another – and that is all that is important.

In Singapore, this CD is available at or can be ordered from Borders (Wheelock Place), Tower (Pacific Plaza & Suntec City) or HMV (The Heeren).

Not strictly classical nor operatic, but Ng Yeuk Fan is moved nonetheless…

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360: 7.12.1998. up.15.12.1999 Ng Yeuk Fan

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