REVIEW: Choral Arts join forces with Washington Performing Arts choirs for MLK celebration.
By Patrick D. McCoy
The annual Choral Arts MLK Tribute concert at The Kennedy Center is one that the Washington community looks forward to attending each year. Over the years, the format has changed a bit, but the overall celebratory nature is the constant thread that brings the event together. Honoring the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in song, the voices of the Choral Arts Chorus joined the WPA’s Men, Women and Children of the Gospel Choir in an evening filled with emotionally-charged music. This year, the Choral Arts Humanitarian Award was presented to C. T. Vivian, for his numerous contributions to the civil rights movement. Opening the concert was the soul-stirring gospel selection from the Hawkins canon of sacred music, “Excellent Lord,” conducted by Stanley Thurston. Soloist Joy King‘s powerful voice provided the emotional arch upon which the combined choirs could soar. Repeated refrains of “Hallelujah” brought the anthem of praise to a triumphant ending.
Though the music of the gospel tradition was a constant thread throughout the evening, there were also contrasting selections showcasing the full musical breadth of all of the choirs. In the motet “Os justi” by Anton Bruckner, the Choral Arts Chorus rendered an ethereal reading of the a cappella work, reminiscent of being in the nave of a great cathedral. From the soaring sopranos to the earthy tonal foundation established by the basses and further enhanced by the moving inner voices of the tenors and altos, music director Scott Tucker led a well-nuanced performance of the intricate work. Such an evening is made even more special when there is the showcasing of young talent. Under the direction of Michele Fowlin, the Children of the Gospel brought down the house with a beautifully choreographed arrangement of “I Know Where I’ve Been” from the musical “Hairspray.” Colorful costumes, signs reflecting sentiments of the civil rights movement and the graceful movement of the children combined to effectively communicate the spirit of peace and the reconciliation that was the embodiment of King.
There were a few new musical dimensions to this year’s concert. In particular, the emerging composer Anwar Ottley saw the Kennedy Center premiere of his anthem arrangement of the traditional hymn “My Faith Looks Up to Thee.” Soprano Anika Sampson-Anderson sang the familiar strains of the tune with a sweet, clear soprano, eventually soaring in full voice above the choir. The brass and organ accompaniment gave the usually reflective hymn a new found majesty. Ottley’s arrangement was also premiered recently at the Washington National Cathedral with Thurston conducting both the Cathedral and Kennedy Center performances.
Audience participation seems to be trendy across performances currently. Tucker engaged the audience in an upbeat township song that he learned while in South Africa, “Wamuhle Lontwana,” which was the perfect opportunity to chat it up with the audience as he taught the respective voice and pronunciation aspects of the new piece. Returning to the the traditional a cappella spirituals and hymn settings, the combined choir’s women performed an exciting arrangement of Moses Hogan’s driving spiritual, “The Battle of Jericho,” showcasing the full depth of the women’s voices, from the soaring upper range of the sopranos to the deep rich warmth of the altos. It was the perfect vehicle for such talent and was accorded a rousing applause. Guest organist W. Patrick Alston highlighted the rich capabilities of the Casavant organ in the rendering of Nathan Carter’s setting of “Great is thy Faithfulness.” Beginning with an improvised prelude on the hymn, Alston intermingled a few gospel harmonies at the console, then segued into the choral setting conducted by Thurston.
The evening ended with the singing of Androzzo’s “If I Can Help Somebody,” said to be Martin Luther King’s favorite hymn, providing the perfect ending to a heralded Washington choral tradition.
After earning degrees in music from Virginia State University and Shenandoah Conservatory, Patrick D. McCoy has contributed arts pieces to CBS Washington and The Afro-American Newspaper, among others. He also writes the magazine’s monthly performing arts column, “Perfect Pitch.” McCoy may be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @PatrickDMcCoy.