Lucid Culture


Russell Saint John Sings Hall Johnson’s Spirituals in NYC 2/25/10

Hall Johnson, baritone singer Russell Saint John told the crowd last night at Merkin Hall, was a pretty amazing guy. World-renowned as a choirmaster and vocal coach in the 1930s onward (he taught Marian Anderson, among others), he learned piano from his sister at age eight, taught himself violin and viola after seeing Frederick Douglass’ grandson play a recital, and seems to have been a musicologist from a very early age. His arrangements of the spirituals he grew up with as the son of an AME minister bear a considerable resemblance to his contemporary, George Gershwin, which may seem ironic but actually further validates Gershwin as being true to the source of his inspiration. Because what Johnson was going for, in establishing, cataloguing and transcribing an African-American spiritual canon, was authenticity. He saw spirituals as an individual expression, and as high art: he had no use for “barbershop harmony,” as Saint John explained. Backed by Broadway United Church of Christ organist/pianist Douglas Drake’s smartly understated interpretations of Johnson’s remarkably terse, Romantically-tinged piano arrangements, Saint John – featured soloist in the choir at the Bronx’s Fordham United Methodist Church – gave the songs a stylistically diverse, emotionally varied, vibrato-laden treatment which obviously drew deeply on his operatic training and experience.

It was a good choice of singer and pianist, because Johnson’s scores, obviously influenced by European lieder and opera, so heavily emphasize the singer. Many of the arrangements – Wade in de Water, Witness [to My Lord] and I’m Gonter Tell God All o’My Troubles [spelling used here is Johnson’s] featured the vocals leading the piano, which would then gently, unostentatiously offer the occasional embellishment, Debussy taking a casual detour into the blues. Several of the one-chord minor-key blues numbers – the bitter chain gang song Swing Dat Hammer, for example – hark back vividly to Africa; others, like the raptly beautiful, atmospheric My Lord, What a Mornin’ and the absolutely gorgeous Let de Heb’n Light Shine on Me pulsed along on more varied changes, the first fertile seeds of musical cross-pollination on these shores.

Above all, Johnson took these songs seriously. What’s inarguable is that gospel music has great power; what’s open to interpretation is what that power might be. Gospel choirs make unbeatable party music; Johnson’s vision, it seems, was a considerably more personal one, an intimate communion rather than a communal fest. So it was no surprise that his arrangements of numbers like Keep A-Inchin’ Along held back from exploding into joyous ragtime. As is so often the case with spirituals, the subtext screamed. “There ain’t no crying over there,” Saint John reminded in Heaven Is One Beautiful Place: substitute “Africa” for “heaven” and the anguish of a captive held prisoner in an alien land is impossible to turn away from. At the end of the concert, Drake got a chance to join Saint John in taking the volume up as high as it would go, on intense, percussively chordal versions of the proto-soul song My God Is So High and a blazing encore of My Good Lord Done Been Here. At this point in the concert, there was no use in trying to hold back anymore – the spirit would not be denied.

February 26, 2010 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 13 Comments

Concert Review: Duo Figer-Khanina at Trinity Church, NYC 2/25/10

Introducing the Duo Figer-Khanina, Trinity Church’s organist said they’d put some warmth into a blustery day – they lived up to that expectation, and more. Violinist Guy Figer and pianist Anna Khanina dedicate themselves to “popularizing rarely played repertoire,” as they put it, which immediately earned them bonus points here. Seeing how they did it proved even more auspicious. This time out they seamlessly tackled two piano-and-violin numbers from the standard repertoire as well as two that deserve to be but aren’t. Schubert’s famous, sprightly Sonatine No. 1 was effortlessly jaunty. In places, notably the twinkling, nocturnal second movement, it was next to impossible to tell who was playing what, testament to the chemistry onstage. By contrast, Khanina roared her way through the more powerful segments of another chamber music standby, Beethoven’s Sonata No. 7, Op. 30 with an almost reckless, percussive attack, a vivid contrast with Figer’s warm, sailing approach.

But the real treats were the obscure material. 20th century Polish violinist/composer Grazyna Bacewicz’ Sonata No. 4 was a delectable discovery, opening rigorously with jarring, modernist tonalities arranged in traditional, often contrapuntal classical architecture. The obdurate quasi-waltz of a second movement recalled Messiaen in its obstinate refusal to offer any kind of resolution; Bacewicz’ fellow Eastern European Leos Janacek came to mind later on, particularly in the otherworldly anthem that takes shape in the final movement (which built to a stubborn catchiness that would have been perfectly at home in a mid-80s rock anthem by Peter Gabriel). The duo closed with post-Romantic Russian composer Joseph Achron’s marvelous Hebrew Melody, a vividly plaintive, Chopinesque tune that grew cinematic with Figer’s swirling, nebulous flights up to a spine-tingling candenza downward, then ending all starlit and haunting. What an unexpected treat to catch them here, especially as Trinity is phasing out their concert series. They’ll be on European tour next month with the Arcos Chamber Orchestra, returning with a New York concert on May 21 at the Yamaha Concert Salon.

February 26, 2010 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Song of the Day 2/26/10

The best 666 songs of alltime countdown continues every day, all the way to #1. Friday’s song is #153:

Barry McGuire – Eve of Destruction

What a fortuitous coincidence – snow in New York! The apocalypse has arrived! Suspend civil liberties, declare Michael Bloomberg mayor for life, call out Blackwater…woops, the National Guard! Seriously though…written surprisingly by born-again El Lay scenester songwriter P.F. Sloan, this snarling Summer of Love single embodies yet transcends every folk-rock cliche of the era. You gotta love that kettledrum. The Dickies’ hardcore punk version is also a lot of fun; if janglerock is your thing, check out the Red Rockers’ 1984 cover.

February 26, 2010 Posted by | lists, Lists - Best of 2008 etc., Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment