“Feel the Love” said UNC Music Department Chair Terry Rhodes in her welcoming remarks. Five days of hyperkineticism set to music – that’s another way of looking at the celebration that effectively reached its dénouement with a gala concert in Hill Hall on a stormy Saturday evening. Looking through the 53-page conference booklet one sees events atop events, making it impossible for omnivorous enthusiasts to attend them all. ‘Twas a veritable embarrassment of riches – and for such a worthy cause: the 25th anniversary of Videmus, the non-profit organization, led by UNC-based soprano Louise Toppin, dedicated to “producing and illuminating classical music of women, African-Americans and under-represented composers.”

In the big Gala Evening of Opera and Song, there were bunches of African-American composers represented. Some were women. Schubert and Brahms hardly fit the “under-represented” category but the event planners effectively made a case for their inclusion, too. African-American composers ranged from Scott Joplin (c.1867-1917) to Nkeiru Okoye (b.1972) and vocalist/arranger Lori C. Hicks (b.1979). In between came many of the major figures of American music (intentionally dropping the “African” qualifier…) across the past hundred years: William Grant Still, of course (whose daughter Judith gave an extraordinary presentation on his life earlier in the day), plus Leo Edwards, H. Leslie Adams, Chapel Hillian T.J. Anderson, William Banfield, Donal Fox, Florence Price, the tragically short-lived Moses Hogan, Margaret Bonds, Roland Carter, Roland Hayes, and Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson. (Readers who aren’t conversant with all these folks ought to have been there – and should definitely do some research!)

William Grant Still the (African-American) Path-Breaker figured prominently in the concert, represented by excerpts from three of his operas (and on the heels of a UNC Opera presentation of Highway One, USA, just before the dinner break); it was a particular delight to re-visit his music, radiantly performed with virtually flawless diction and projection in Hill Hall, one of our more challenging venues, by Toppin, baritone Anthony Turner, soprano Laura English-Robinson, and baritone Robert Honeysucker and tenor Sam McKelton.

With one exception, the accompaniments were provided by Patrick O’Donnell and Noriko Yasuda, pianists who, together, provided consistently impressive musical frameworks, matching in passion and emotion the vocalism of the great singers who so richly rewarded those who attended this program.

Also in the first half were contrasting arias from two Harriet Tubman operas – by Okoye and Edwards – and arias from Blake, by Adams, Walker (Anderson), and Treemonisha (Joplin). Old hands will have known some of these works, but perhaps not all of them: it was an evening of discovery and rediscovery, guided by supremely gifted solo artists, all of whom threw themselves into profound interpretations of invariably powerful music. Highlights included English-Robinson’s performance of “The Sacred Tree” and bass-baritone Daniel Washingon’s “Good Advice,” both from the Joplin opera (and with a backup chorus of four young artists from UNC in the latter – students unlikely ever to forget this night…)., plus Honeysucker and McKelton in the radiant “Ave Maria” duet from Still’s Costaso that ended this half, but one would not have wanted to miss anything in this truly astounding survey of living, breathing opera of the most vital kinds by African-American creators. Why are these scores not part of the standard repertory of our American opera houses? And why are these artists, for the most part, so infrequently heard in our major concert and opera venues?

Part two turned to songs, starting with two Psalm settings by Banfield, whose early Luyala and its various spin-offs are still remembered with fondness and affection here in the Triangle region of NC. Toppin delivered these little gems, making one long to hear the complete cycle at some point.

Pianist and composer Donal Fox premiered a set of “Variations on T.J.’s ‘In Memoriam Sarah Bollinger'” (T.J. of course referring to Anderson, one of Fox’s teachers); the powerful music spoke of Fox’s interest in music of all kinds and of the innovative approach to music he shares with several of his mentors. This was followed immediately by Schubert’s famous “Der Tod und das Mädchen” and Brahms’ “Die Trauernde” with mezzo-soprano Patricia Miller; the Schubert was electrifying in its impact – can there ever have been a more dramatic performance than this?

Fox’s group ended with his own Improvisations on the Brahms song; as this began, Miller ever so slowly left the stage, further adding to the power of this segment of the concert.

There followed a bevy of Spirituals, works that are no longer the exclusive purview of African-American artists but to which many of them still bring special insight. This was certainly the case here as Hicks “I am a poor pilgrim/When I comes to die, give me Jesus” and “I Wanna Die Early” gave way to McKelton’s “My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord” (Price), Washington’s extended renditions of “Never Said a Mumblin’ Word” (Hogan) and “Hold On” (Bonds), Honeysucker’s “King Jesus Will Be Mine” (Bonds), and Marquita Lister’s breath-taking “Steal Away” and “O Freedom” (Carter).

Then came Leona Mitchell, the 18-year Met vet from Oklahoma who earlier had participated in a panel discussion with the equally much-loved and revered Hilda Harris and Martha Flowers, senior singers who helped pave the way for the current generation of artists to enjoy considerably less encumbered musical careers. It was heart-warming to observe these grand ladies in action, acknowledging the applause and adulation of their listeners in Person Recital Hall as surely they did on the stages of the world’s greatest opera houses…. But enough of reminiscing – this concert continued with the here and now as Mitchell completely rebuilt and redelivered “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” in a version that to these ears celebrated the late Marian Anderson every bit as much as it reflected the present singer’s artistic world-view.

And then at last the platform was cleared for the great trail-blazer George Shirley,* whose voice retains much of the power and freshness many of his fans recall from those wonderful performances at the Met, starting in 1961. (He is 77, according to online sources – singers are sometimes guarded about pivotal dates, but one suspects Shirley is not. Hear a wonderful birthday tribute at YouTube.)

He began his group offstage, singing a three-stanza African Sorrow Song, one of the forerunners of Spirituals as we now know them. Onstage, he continued with another a cappella work based on the Sorrow Songs – “I want to go home” – before being joined by pianist O’Donnell for two arrangements by Roland Hayes and then, finally, a reprise of the Spiritual “O Freedom,” this time as set by Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson. It’s a song the themes of which resounded in many ways, spoken, sung, and unspoken, too, during this concert and, for sure, during most of the five days of celebration of Videmus. Those who were there will know. Those who weren’t may not believe any of this. Let’s hope a recording will promptly ensue!

The V[idemus] @ 25 Festival concludes March 25. For details, see the CVNC listing of the event.

*Shirley had moderated the panel of the three divas earlier in the day.