“Abyssinian: A Gospel Celebration” receives its Washington premiere at The Kennedy Center.
By Patrick D. McCoy
For the Washington Performing Arts Society’s opening season celebration, voices and instruments commemorated several anniversaries in one evening. To mark the rich 200 year history of Harlem’s historic Abyssinian Baptist Church, the famous jazz trumpeter and musical statesman Wynton Marsalis was commissioned in 2008 to compose a special work to commemorate the occasion. The result was “Abyssinian: Gospel Celebration” which received its Washington premiere at the Kennedy Center on Sunday night. Though the title may lead the listener to believe they are in store for a gospel performance, what is really offered is a historic snapshot of what occurs musically in the African American Church.
Howard University music alumnus Damien Sneed conducted the performance with his choir Chorale Le Chateau accompanied by the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with the work’s composer on trumpet and as bandleader. Of special note, this presentation by WPAS marked Marsalis’ 30th year anniversary of performances with the organization and the 20th year anniversary of the WPAS Men, Women and Children of the Gospel, who were guest performers on the evening’s program. “Wynton has created a fantastic foothold for jazz in the United States,” said WPAS president Jenny Bilfield in her opening remarks.
There were many elements of this performance that connected this rich sacred tapestry together. Though it was conceived for an African American Baptist church, the composition was organized in the manner of the liturgical order of the mass. Of special interest was the way in which the instruments took on an emotional nature, not necessarily with a melodious presence, but rather first appearing at dissonant harmonies almost like souls looking for solace. With the members of the WPAS choirs joining in from the concert hall aisles, the effect of the devotional section of the work was even more palpable, as the centered directness of the simple vocal hum surrounded the listener. Repeatedly sung words like “yes” and “Lord” gave heartfelt emphasis to the overall spiritual nature of the work. Even still, it utilized some of the ad libitum occurrences within worship.
Leading in like an oratorio recitative by one of the choir’s tenors provided the perfect segue into the text “God is great and greatly to be praised.” The trumpet for centuries has been used to summon praise and this moment was punctuated by a flashy solo by Marsalis. Many styles were explored throughout but “Glory to God” stood out as displaying the full breadth of Marsalis’ compositional genius. In this movement, one could hear not only the influence of jazz and gospel, but also the influence of the European church anthem. Wonderfully merged together, the listener was given many musical elements, but at the core of it all was artistic substance. Pianist Dan Nimmer and bassist Carlos Heniquez gave exceptional rhythmic framework to the entire aggregation throughout.
In the second part of the work, Chorale Le Chateau further demonstrated itself as having the potential to become a world class choir. Many of the movements in this section were a cappella and showcased the ensemble’s ability to sing with the control necessary for the motet just as well as the hair-raising delivery required for the emotional depth of gospel music. That depth was indeed on display in the “Doxology,” which could stand alone as a singular choral octavo. The singers hung on to Sneed’s every beat and the result was pure magic.
Hand clapping in the church traditionally marks praise, but can also indicate a myriad of other things. It is used to bring punctuation or a section of the service to a close. Hand clapping can also be used to encourage or sometimes even gloss over something that may not be going so well in a service. And of course, it is affirmation of something that has been done well. In this performance, it was used for all of these purposes. The use of contrasting vocal soloists throughout was another facet of the African American church brought to the fore, which speaks to the earlier point about varying use of applause in church. That was especially evident moving towards the end of the first section with the appearance of soloist Nicole Phifer . Though she had been preceded by several energetic vocal acrobats, it was her deep, resonant voice that reached the depths of the hall. There was a sense of pathos that seemed to arrive with her at that moment. Like church, the applause was long and lingered, while the reality of ‘concert decorum’ crept in and the musical aggregation moved away from that high moment.
One of the true testaments of Marsalis’ large scale work is that it boldly dispels the myth of disorder as it relates to the African American Church. In fact, through this large scale celebratory work, not only did it give a nod to the spiritual nature of the music, but also to the academic excellence inherent in the African American church tradition. Bringing the work to its close was the traditional benediction, concluding with a “Great Amen.”
The only downside was the audience’s overwhelming desire to give the performers multiple ovations for their outstanding performance. The opportunity to show appreciation through numerous ovations was quickly quelled as the members of the choir filed off stage as opposed to basking in the reward of their hard work. But in retrospect in the context of church, the musician is hopefully only playing to an audience of one. Maybe that was the real lesson to take away.
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, Joshua Bell, Martina Arroyo Denyce Graves, Eric Owens, Norman Scribner, Julian Wachner, Christine Brewer and Lawrence Brownlee. He serves as music director at Trinity Episcopal Church, DC. 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.