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Chamber Music, Recital Review Print

More than a "Spiritual" - African-American Music and the Vocal Artistry of Louise Toppin

July 19, 2009 - Raleigh, NC:

When asked what African-American composers and arrangers have contributed to vocal music, most people refer, almost automatically, to the many arrangements of deeply-moving, inspiring spirituals which have enriched the repertoire of sacred song. But Sunday's concert at the NC Museum of Art revealed that spirituals are only one body of great music in African-Americans' rich vocal heritage which continues to develop today. In a "Sights and Sounds on Sundays" concert presented by the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild, soprano Louise Toppin, accompanied admirably by pianist David Heid and cellist Timothy Holley, performed a program of vocal music which, in addition to a satisfying number of spirituals, also included a variety of art songs representing the work of several distinguished African-American composers.

Louise Toppin's beautiful lyric soprano voice, with its power, expressiveness, and unusually high tessitura, was the perfect instrument for all the songs she offered to an audience that was delighted by her great vocal and interpretative skills. I have no major complaints about her vocal performance other than some occasionally fuzzy diction, but I do wish she could have given her listeners information about the composers of the music on the program without expending a lot of time talking and risking taxing her voice.

The majority of songs on this program were art songs by well-known black composers, including Robert Owens, William Grant Still, and H.T. Burleigh. Heart on the Wall, the opening song cycle by Robert Owens, with texts by the great poet Langston Hughes, was particularly effective.  In all five pieces, Owens' settings made the words come alive; his melodic structures allowed Toppin to employ her great range to provide the emphatic expression in superb climactic phrases. Each number was quite distinct from the other four and showed the audience a different aspect of Toppin's vocal skills, from beautifully-executed long lines to brilliant coloratura phrases. I particularly appreciated the pristine beauty of the words and vocal expressiveness of the pensive "Remembrance." The piano accompaniment throughout the cycle was brilliantly composed, offering the perfect support for the vocal lines and allowing the audience to appreciate Heid's superior abilities.

The second set of art songs highlighted the skills of four composers. In his "Golden Days," from Costaso, William Grant Still's well-crafted melodies and rich keyboard harmonies exquisitely evoke his subject. His music also allowed Toppin to reveal the beauty of her high voice, which she accessed effortlessly throughout the concert. In "Hold Fast to Dreams," Florence Price offers a philosophical piano setting that is an excellent frame for Toppin's thoughtful singing. H.T. Burleigh's delightful setting of a supposed love song, "He met her in the meadow," is intended to catch listeners napping: all the lines are sweet with a lover's intentions until, in the last line, those enthralled by the story learn that the object of the lover's affections is "a Jersey Cow." Toppin showed her audience that she enjoyed the humor of the song when she delivered the punch line with just the right amount of surprise and amusement. The last song in this group, Leslie Adams' "Since you went away," is unabashedly sentimental but artfully composed, and Toppin made the most of all the pain and sweetness which pours from every phrase.

The eight spirituals which followed these art songs were no doubt the music the audience was waiting for, and Toppin, realizing this, sang them with all her artistry. Every one of them was a pleasure to hear. In particular, Still's "Hard Trials," Thomas Kerr's very familiar "Git on Board," and Jackie Hairston's "Guide My Feet" rocked the house as Toppin allowed her excitement and love for these pieces to be communicated to her listeners. Two other pieces, Hal Johnson's "Heaven is one beautiful place" and Undine Smith. Moore's "Come down angels," added to the variety in this set of spirituals. Both are speculative pieces about the nature of heaven, but they could not be more different from each other. Johnson's piece is a mental picture of the Creator's beautiful realm, but the speaker is yearning for it, not privileged to see it. In contrast, Moore's number is rollicking and joyful, allowing the voice to enjoy all its opportunities to evoke Heaven's unequalled wonder and transcendent perfection.

To conclude the performance, Toppin and Heid were joined by cellist Holley in Valerie Capers' magnificent if brief Song of the Four Seasons. In "Spring," the voice and the cello sing together, effectively extolling the glory of the season. "Summer" is evoked by richly languid music, "Autumn," by subdued harmonic colors and the solo voice bringing the images of autumnal fields to the mind's eye. "Winter" is pictured in stark-sounding chordal structures enabling listeners to imagine the whiteness and cold which, in the end, give way to a glimpse of returning life as exultant voice and instrumentalists' herald spring's glorious tomorrow.