The Fowler Performing Arts Fund presented "An American Music Festival" at St. Ambrose Episcopal Church on Sunday afternoon, March 6. The festival, honoring Ruth and Amos Fowler, trustee and benefactor of the Raleigh Boychoir, featured the Raleigh Boychoir under the direction of Thomas E. Sibley, along with guest conductor and piano soloist Michael Braz and bass-baritone James Longmire.
The deep well from which the music for the program was drawn is the bequest of African-Americans, owned as property and treated sometimes brutally, sometimes benignly, under the inhumane curse of slavery, who created one of the richest treasures of music human enterprise has ever achieved. The spirituals they sang in the fields, in the slave quarters, in the woods, in the churches, and by quiet and humble hearths expressed their longing for a better life, their confidence in the goodness of God, and a faith more powerful than many of us today can imagine.
The program opened with three spirituals expressing exuberance and joy, sung by the boys, attired in beautiful white tunics over black robes with pleated white collars. "Good News!," arranged by Andre Thomas, was led by Braz with the choir's regular accompanist, Vicki Oehling, at the piano. "Over my Head I Hear Music," arranged by Braz, was conducted by Oehling with Braz playing its very aggressive piano accompaniment. Sibley took up the baton to conduct "Great Day!," arranged by Rollo A. Dilworth. The boys, with their sweet voices and musical training, charmed the capacity audience that filled the lovely sanctuary. The only distraction was a ceiling fan with bad bearings that ground away throughout the concert.
Longmire's rich and beautiful bass-baritone voice has been heard in churches, college auditoriums, and concert halls in the Raleigh area frequently for some thirty or more years. On this occasion, he sang three arrangements by the wonderful Harry T. Burleigh (listed in the program as "Burley"), who did so much to preserve these musical treasures. "Were you There?," "Go Down Moses," and "Ev'ry Time I Feel the Spirit," convincingly sung, moved the mixed audience to vigorous applause.
The Raleigh Boychoir gave a vigorous rendition of "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands." Choirboys Connor Lillis and Austin Hurt did nice solo work in "Behold, That Star," and Braz played a "Spiritual Improvisation," displaying his considerable creative and pianistic skills. The program ended with a "Spiritual Jubilee" that sounded a lot like a hoedown – it was joyful and rambunctious. For an encore, the boys sang the moving "Deep River" in a very nice arrangement by Braz. It was a fitting concert as a tribute to and appreciation of the many unknown African-American composers who added so much to our cultural heritage.