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

CD Review: A Company of Voices – Conspirare in Concert

For a new group, coming straight out of the chute with a great album can be as much curse as blessing. For better or worse, it’s Austin, Texas-based choral group Conspirare’s cross to bear. Both their debut, Requiem, as well as their 2007 follow-up, Threshold of Night, an adventurous collections of works by British composer Tarik O’Regan, share a subtle and frequently not so subtle brilliance, pushing the boundaries of where vocal music can go. Conspirare’s pioneering director Craig Hella Johnson’s claim to fame is his collages, as he calls them, intricately polyrhythmic arrangements of two or more choral works simultaneously. One literally exhilarating example here on the new cd (also available as a dvd) blends segments of an Appalachian folk tune with Motown, a Roy Orbison hit, medieval plainsong and Broadway. Anyone who might think choral music can’t be psychedelic ought to hear this. Since recording a choir utilizes pretty much the same techniques in the studio and in concert, calling this a live album is somewhat beside the point. And in contrast to the often haunting, starkly beautiful sound of the ensemble’s previous release, this frequently has the feel of a PBS special…maybe because it was recorded for one.

Conspirare particularly excels at spirituals and soul music. They also ably explore both country – notably Dolly Parton’s Light of a Clear Blue Morning – and contemporary gospel with a surprising majesty and depth. To their infinite credit, the performances generally transcend the more commercial material here, for example, finding the inner poignance in an otherwise forgettable Annie Lennox top 40 hit. Yet unsurprisingly, it’s the edgiest material here – Eliza Gylkison’s stoic Requiem, the title track from their first album; an excerpt from Triptych by Tarik O’Regan, and an often spine-tingling take of Samuel Barber’s Agnus Dei that spring the latch, voices and arrangements soaring free of a Pandora’s box of schlock (Johnson should leave writing power ballads to those who sing them – with their bands, that is, not with this unit).

Yet the sheer craft and unabashed joyousness of the group raises even the most lightweight material here above the level of a tune-out – although Lucid Culture’s resident jazz critic walked by the front desk when this was playing, scrunched up her face and announced that “This sounds like what my mom would listen to around Christmastime when she’s baking cookies.” Well, at low volume, maybe: all the voices here turned up to ten will rock your stove. And it’s reason enough to look forward to Conspirare’s next album, hopefully making a fullscale return to their paradigm-shifting roots.

May 12, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment