Renowned soprano Kathleen Battle took her audience on a deeply moving spiritual journey.
By Patrick D. McCoy
The Washington arts community well remembers when superstar soprano Kathleen Battle presented the Washington debut of “Underground Railroad” with the Morgan State University Choir and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at Strathmore back in 2010. The performance was such a hit that it recently made a second appearance, but this time Battle was joined by acclaimed jazz pianist Cyrus Chestnut and the Heritage Signature Chorale conducted by Stanley J. Thurston.
With the tremendously loyal following that Battle has attained throughout her career, any classical music buff may have expected her recent appearance to be one of mere diva worship by adoring fans. Though she certainly commanded the attention of her audience, she chose to use the performance as a vehicle to musically share the plight of enslaved Africans on their journey to freedom. Pianist Cyrus Chestnut set the stage for the performance with his rendering of “Tribulation,” a deeply moving prelude of spirituals that evoked the emotional depth of the evening. The Heritage Signature Chorale, already seated on the stage, basked reflectively in the music of Chestnut, which would ultimately be their chariot.
Wearing a black floor-length gown and a large gold wrap (which she later swapped for her trademark fuschia wrap), Battle bowed before her capacity audience. At 64, she is still quite the creature of the stage, with every gesture and nuance made to stunning effect. The probing arrangement of the spiritual “Lord, How Come We Here” by Evelyn Simpson Curenton highlighted the soprano’s ability to speak directly to the text. Led by Thurston, the rich voices of the chorale gave beautiful support to Battle’s solo line. Each verse of the spiritual, as she repeated “I wish I never was born,” spoke with a piercing directness that left the audience spellbound at its conclusion.
The program not only showcased Battle’s gifts as a soloist, but also highlighted her scholastic abilities as a curator. It was fascinating to experience a true showing of rapport between the three forces, all for the sake of sharing a unique story. A perfect example of this was in “Go Down Moses” which provided an opportunity for the chorale to unleash their vocal power that was previously just above a whisper. Chestnut took both his stage partners and the audience on a toe-tapping, soul-stirring journey as he played. Then Battle took her turn, generally capping the endings of the arrangements with still, floating high notes. Narrations from the writings of Frederick Douglas read by Kweisi Mfume provided the essential historical context for the program. After a rousing performance by The Heritage Signature Chorale of Damon Dandridge‘s “Rockin’ Jerusalem,” the skilled ensemble led by Thurston was accorded a standing ovation. A similar gratifying moment occurred when Battle was joined by an ensemble of women from the chorale for “Balm in Gilead” arranged by Hale Smith.
Those seeking a chance to see Kathleen Battle in all her vocal glory were not disappointed. In particular, her a cappella rendering of the spiritual “Were You There” was one of great reverence, with each nuance preparing the listener for the ultimate journey to the cross. “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” showcased the remarkable clarity of her voice, particularly the precision of pitch. Following the performance, Battle greeted a long line of friends and admirers, which included Metropolitan Opera singers, soprano Carmen Balthrop and husband Patrick Delhaney, bass Morris Robinson and NEA’s Director of Music and Opera Wayne Brown.
Recently named among the Forty Under 40 for his contributions to arts and humanities, Patrick D. McCoy received a B.M. in vocal performance from Virginia State University and a M.M. in church music from the Shenandoah Conservatory in Winchester, Va. He has contributed arts and culture pieces to CBS Washington, The Afro-American Newspaper and the newly published book, “In Spite of the Drawbacks” (Association of Black Women Historians), which includes his chapter on legendary soprano Leontyne Price. McCoy has interviewed some of the most acclaimed artists of our time, including Renée Fleming, Denyce Graves, Norman Scribner, Julian Wachner, Christine Brewer and Lawrence Brownlee. Listen to these interviews and others at Blog Talk Radio. McCoy may be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @PatrickDMcCoy.