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Orchestral Music, Vocal Music Review Print

Christmas Spirituals: Truly Joyous Sound of the Season

December 27, 2007 - Raleigh, NC:

There is something powerful in the style and the substance of spirituals that touch our hearts as deeply as any music we hear. But I had not fully related this style to the musical wonders of the Christmas season until a large number of the North Carolina Symphony’s finest players, three excellent vocal soloists, a fine saxophonist, and the Raleigh Community Gospel Chorus, all under the direction of William Henry Curry, the Orchestra’s personable Resident Conductor, opened my ears at last.

All the singers, soprano soloists Tina Morris-Anderson and Rozlyn Sorrell, tenor soloist Corey Leak, and the Raleigh Community Gospel Chorus assembled for this concert with the assistance of Rev. Paul Anderson, were inspirational performers totally immersed in the substance of the songs they sang. From the beginning of the concert everyone in the sold-out Meymandi Concert Hall sensed the passion in every note. The resulting emotional temperature of audience and performers kept rising until the resounding final chords of the concert.

As is typical of gospel singers, the three soloists in this performance were fired up with a combination of vocal beauty and power, adrenaline and considerable skill. Morris-Anderson and Sorrell made immediate emotional connections with the audience and never lost it at any time in the concert. Both had the ability to sing deep, rich chest tones as well as roof-raising high notes. Morris-Anderson’s “Witness” and Sorrell’s “Mary Had a Baby” were filled with examples of vocal virtuosity to which everyone in the audience responded with shouts of appreciation. But I, being somewhat of a purist, had my admiration for the sopranos dampened by their insistence on shifting, without any vocal delicacy, from their low voices to their high voices, causing each of them to have two unrelated voices.

The vocal soloist who called forth my greatest admiration was Corey Leak, whose big, powerful tenor voice filled the hall in “I Don’t Feel No Ways Tired.” When Leak again took the stage in the encore “Amen,” he was even more excited than in his first solo, and led the Chorus in steadily rising, passionate singing made more powerful by upward-moving modulations demanding even more voice from Leak until there was no musical place to go. The number brought down the house and inspired the audience’s instantaneous, shouting standing ovation.  

Of all the singers I heard during this performance, I was most deeply moved by the Chorus, whose distinguished director, Dr. Lonieta Aurora Thompson Cornwall, did a masterful job of pulling groups from several church congregations into one exciting, spirited whole in a short time. All participants sang together, so that every phrase, every entrance, and every word had an unforgettable impact. They also worked very effectively with the Orchestra and the soloists under Curry’s excellent direction. To say that their performance reached the hearts of everyone in the house is an understatement. The Chorus’ white-hot delivery in C. Shawn Tyson’s “How Majestic” and Eric Daniels’ “What a Mighty God” could never be any better.

The Symphony played with élan, demonstrating that its players were quite capable of performing music in any style. All the players, especially the hot brass and the superb percussionists, revealed their skills in William Grant Still’s exciting Animato from Symphony No. 1, “Afro-American,” and his Moderately Fast from Symphony No. 2, “Song of a New Race.” This great music, filled with satisfying jazz harmonies and exciting rhythms, kept the concert moving at a fast pace. One of the best numbers was Duke Ellington’s witty “Peanut Brittle Brigade,” a not-so-subtle, good-humored parody of Tchaikovsky’s March from The Nutcracker. The players stayed hot, saving some of their best work until the end of the evening with their inspired, swinging contribution in “What a Mighty God” and “Amen.” For my part, the most moving instrumental music in the concert was “Precious Lord Take My Hand,” with Ira Wiggins’ smoky tenor saxophone singing the unforgettable solo.

This joyous "Gospel Spiritual Spectacular" was a fitting way to place an exclamation point of approval on the beautiful music of the season we have had the opportunity to enjoy this year. Certainly it has expanded our awareness of yet another expression of the sentiment of this holiday.