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The outstanding Los Angeles-based American soprano Shana Blake Hill, who has on several previous occasions graced Triangle stages, returned to Durham on the evening of September 15 for a short recital celebrating the golden anniversary of (and benefiting) the Merrick/Washington Magazine for the Blind (formerly The Negro Braille Magazine ), which was established in 1952 by Hill's great-grandmother. (For more information, see http://www.hayti.org/About-us/Lydia_Merrick.htm [inactive 12/04].)
Hill has been making the concert rounds of late and earlier this summer participated in a performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in Florida. Here, at the Hayti Heritage Center, her program included several numbers from her concert and operatic repertoire along with spirituals set by some big names in that somewhat specialized field: H.T. Burleigh, Hall Johnson, and Margaret Bonds.
The program, in which Hill was accompanied by the outstanding Duke-based pianist Deborah Hollis, began a bit late, due to a local power failure, corrected in the nick of time (but with some disappointment for the attendees, for the idea of a candle-lit concert in the lovely St. Joseph's Performance Hall, formerly a church, was tremendously appealing). "Laurie's Song," from Copland's The Tender Land , got things off to a radiant start. An a cappella rendition of "Wouldn't take nothing for my journey now" (which served as the title of the entire program) was clearly sung, directly from the heart, as were Burleigh's version of "Balm in Gilead" and Johnson's, of "Witness." Hollis provided a stirring interlude with a solo piano version of "Motherless Child," by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Bond's "He's got the whole world in His hands" led to "Ain't it a pretty night?" from Floyd's Susannah (which Hill did not sing here when Long Leaf Opera produced the work, but for which she would be ideal). Barber's "Crucifixion," from the Hermit Songs , fit admirably into the overall program, and the same composer's stunningly beautiful "Sure on this shining night" was probably the evening's high-water mark, in terms of interpretation and artistic impact. A moment of silence in memory of the victims of 9/11 was followed by Johnson's setting of "Ride on King Jesus," delivered with a measure of awe and considerable reverence (as opposed to, say, tenor Curtis Rayam's more forceful interpretation, heard in a Raleigh church years ago).
The program honored Hill's great-grandmother (Lyda Moore Merrick), grandmother (Constance Merrick Watts), and mother (Debbie Watts Hill) and was thus more than the customary family affair. Hill is, as the saying goes, from 'round here, and it's always a treat to hear her on her too-infrequent visits to the Triangle. She's becoming a superb singer and artist, one whose voice is used with great intelligence and skill. We look forward to her next appearance here, whenever that may be.