Perfect Pitch: Songs of Love and Justice

by patrickmccoy

Local choirs sing the power of social justice.

By Patrick D. McCoy


The Combined Voices of the Annual Choral Arts Martin Luther King Jr. Tribute shown performing during the recent concert at The Kennedy Center. (Photo courtesy Choral Arts)

The Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington presented two performances in its love-themed concert “Passion” at the recently renovated Church of the Epiphany in downtown Washington. The many musical ways in which love was represented through a myriad of vocal genres made this performance especially unique. Outgoing music director Jeff Buhrman put his final stamp on his 14th and final season with the chorus. The program began with “Gabriel’s Oboe,” one of legendary composer Ennio Morricone’s most beloved works. Oboist David Dickey performed his solo lines with beautiful tone and phrasing, which was further enhanced by the lyrical strings of the accompanying quartet. The voices seemed to find their home in the church’s glorious space.


Conductor Jeff Buhrman is in his 14th and final season as music director of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington. (Photo by Patrick D. McCoy)

The basses in particular anchored the ensemble’s core sound, which was evident in the work’s concluding “Alleluia.” Exploring a variety of genres, the program turned to beloved ballads. A lovely arrangement of “Unchained Melody” was especially pleasing and seemed to warm the hearts of the packed audience. Ernest Charles’ famous solo “When I Have Sung My Songs” was presented in a wonderful contrasting arrangement for a male chorus. Exploring the operatic canon of love songs, tenor Garrick Jordan sang a rousing “Vesti la giubba” from Leoncavallo’s “I Pagliacci,” which leaned more toward dramatic presence than vocal depth. The program also featured the Rock Creek Singers conducted by Thea Kano in three selections, including an exquisitely sung “Bogorodiste Devo” from the Vespers of Sergei Rachmaninoff. The spiritual “I Know I’ve Been Changed” arranged by Damon Dandridge was a real crowd pleaser, thanks to its rhythmic nature and the solo line sung with conviction by Calvin Robinson. The most profound offering of the evening was the social anthem “Define Me” with impressive soloists Matt Beck and Dana Nearing. A moving song of tolerance and social justice, the message was an overarching punctuation of the concert’s theme and the chorus’ mission.

Across town a few days later, The Choral Arts Society of Washington performed its annual Martin Luther King Jr. Choral Tribute at The Kennedy Center. Conceived by conductor emeritus Norman Scribner, the concert brought together the diverse voices of Choral Arts and the The Washington Performing Arts Society Men, Women and Children of the Gospel in an evening of inspirational music. The repertoire ranged from spirituals to rousing gospel arrangements. Leading the choirs were Choral Arts music director Scott Tucker, Washington Performing Arts Society’s Stanley J. Thurston and Michelle Fowlin, respectively.

The program opened with Thurston leading the combined choirs in two selections by contemporary composer Raymond Wise, a rousing  gospel treatment of the spiritual “I’ve Got A Robe” and “My God is a Mighty God.” This was followed by the premiere of Tucker’s “Dancing,” a whimsical tone poem of sorts that mirrored a childlike innocence. To follow a performance by the energetic WPAS Children of the Gospel could present a task for any choir. There was no exception in this case as director Michelle Fowlin and the youthful singers brought down the house with Patrick Lundy’s soulful arrangement of “Jesus is A Rock” and an arrangement of “There’s A Dream” with “The Impossible Dream.” The latter provided the perfect segue into the presentation of the 2014 Choral Arts Humanitarian Award by Johnnetta Besch Cole to Ysaye Barnwell for her rich contributions to the music community. Barnwell also became the first award recipient to be a featured performer in the concert, leading the combined choirs in four of her best-known works.

“Come Let Us Build a New World” was a welcomed contrast to the more percussive nature of her works. Also conducted by Tucker, this choral work was reminiscent of the church anthem, reverent in nature yet profound in execution. The composer led the aggregation of singers in the remaining of her three songs: “We Are,” “Wanting Memories” and “The Gospel: Wings to Fly.” Further bringing in the spirit of unity was Barnwell’s trademark of leading diverse groups in song. That was no different as she invited the audience to sing with her. Each section of the audience was given a specific role to sing at her direction. The result was a harmonious joining of voices, blending together in one song.

Ending the program was the fervent rendering of Moses Hogan’s intricate arrangement of “My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord.” The pulsating rhythmic drive, rumbling basses and the soaring sopranos were a recipe for euphoric applause from the audience. Choral Arts special guest artist Ralph Herndon joined in as he sang and accompanied the choir in the song of praise, “He’s Already Done What He Said He Would Do.” The beloved “If I Can Help Somebody,” a favorite of King’s, served as the perfect ending to a special evening of choral music.

Two diversely different choirs both presented songs of love and justice. They are not that different at all.

Recently named among the Forty Under 40 for his contributions to arts and humanitiesPatrick 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. , where he serves on the alumni board of directors.  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 , Joshua Bell, Martina Arroyo, Denyce Graves, Eric Owens,  Norman Scribner, Julian Wachner, Christine Brewer and Lawrence  Brownlee.  He is music director at Trinity Episcopal Church, DC.   Listen to these interviews and others  at Blog Talk Radio.  Additionally, he is a member of the Music Critics Association of North America.  McCoy may be reached via email at and on Twitter @PatrickDMcCoy.

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