Choral Music Review Print

God's Trombones, Gospel & Spirituals

May 7, 2004 - Raleigh, NC:

Remarkable a cappella work is apparently the hallmark of the sensational, spiritually uplifting Capital Area Chorale. It shone in their May 7 opener, "I'm Gonna Sing," with words and music by Moses Hogan. I had read previous reviews at their web page that praised the unaccompanied choral work, and I hasten to concur. The advertised program, given at St. Michael's Episcopal Church, was "God's Trombones & Other Spirituals," but Music Director and Conductor William J. Weisser took time to explain that some of the things to be presented were not actually spirituals, but Gospel music, according to composer Andre Thomas of Florida State University, whose works appeared twice on the evening's program. Spirituals arose from the antebellum years. The body of Christian music that has developed more recently, including such favorites as "Precious Lord" (used as an example although it was not on the program) - music that often arises from the African-American community but that is sung by many others as well - is called Gospel.

My observation is that the music on this program, and Gospel and spirituals in general, are colorblind. The meaning is translucent and energizing. Spirit is intelligible to all people, regardless of color or race, and it moves the listener when well performed. Sometimes, as a matter of fact, it is moving even when sung spontaneously. In addition to the two special guest readers, Waltye Rasulala and the Rev. Walter McLeod, who elevated the evening by their participation in "God's Trombones," there were only three African-American participants.

It is often said that music is the international language; I'd add " inter-racial language." There was no lack of understanding of the message or spirit of this music sung principally by white people. Seeing the Rev. McLeod in that particular pulpit reminded me that a couple of weeks ago the Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of North Carolina, the Rt. Rev. Michael B. Curry, was at St. Michael's for confirmation. It was good to see another African-American in that pulpit again, and thus the event became more than a token. Hopefully, there will eventually be more interracial participation in classical music offered by arts organizations in Raleigh.

Especially exciting and uplifting were the familiar "My Lord What a Morning," arranged by H. T. Burleigh, and "Dry Bones," arranged by Livingston Gearhart. It was delightful to hear the repetitions of the name "Dan-ee-el" in "Daniel, Daniel, Servant of the Lord" by Undine S. Moore. Weisser pointed out that "Set Down Servant" and "My God Is A Rock" were made famous by Robert Shaw, although the last one was arranged jointly with the famous Alice Parker. "Ride the Chariot" and "Keep Your Lamps" were arranged by Thomas. "Sinnuh Man," with words and music by Kenney Potter, must have been fun to teach to the choir as it sounded like "cinnamon" if not "cinn-a-mahn."

"God's Trombones" turned out not to be the Moravian trombone choir that I had expected from the title in the announcement. (Worldwide, there are more black than white Moravians, because of missions, so it was a logical guess.) Rather, it is the name of a collection of five poems by James Weldon Johnson set to music by Roy Ringwald, the great contemporary choral arranger. Rasulala has a gorgeous singing voice, and twice during her reading from the lectern as the Prayer Leader, she briefly poured out crystal-clear tones of lyric soprano song. The poems were read alternately by the two guests. Johnson's title refers to the mellifluous voices of Gospel preachers, and for the pulpit role of the Preacher Man, Rev. McLeod used a spiritually moving bass speaking voice. His admirably controlled ardor was at a level just above the music, while Rasulala's refined speaking voice was barely heard when the music would crescendo right through her poetry readings. Perhaps her mike was not turned up. There is a fine sound system in the sanctuary.

"God's Trombones," the feature of the evening, was visually attractive as well, the chorus being in concert black and the readers, on either side, costumed tastefully. Rasulala wore a shawl-collared tuxedo-style white cropped jacket over basic black. Rev. McLeod wore a stole of horizontal African colored stripes over a white cassock. The unusual work was conducted throughout by Weisser because the readings were accompanied by organ or, in some places, humming voices. The evening's guest organ accompanist, Kevin Kerstetter, and the Chorale's regular pianist, Michael Clinkscales, participated. There was an especially effective use of soft chimes from the organ at the very end of the work. There were no substantial solo performances during the evening, but selected voices from the Chorale - Dena Walker, Genita Raynor, Jenny Wayne, Doug Richmond, and Steve Breedlove - carried out their individual responsibilities as required. As noted, the voice of the evening was Rasulala's, when it unexpectedly broke into song during the poetry readings.

I would urge the programming of more multimedia works such as this. "God's Trombones" is a natural for Black History Month. It is significant that William Weisser has introduced Roy Ringwald's setting of James Weldon Johnson's poetry to the Triangle community. It should inspire other organizations to perform this community-spanning work of art. And it should inspire all segments of the community to participate in singing with the Capital Area Chorale.