Profound, challenging, emotional, and above all, beautiful, Duke University created a truly memorable concert with their program “On the Persistence of the Spiritual in Black Music.” Led by an engaging array of Black cultural ambassadors, the concert was an extension of Duke’s “Black Music and the Soul of America Lab,” a program dedicated to exploring the breadth of content and influence of Black American music. In addition to a robust series of concerts, the program strives to infuse the undergraduate and graduate music curriculum at Duke with an awareness of the myriad manifestations and implications of Black Music. Co-director of the program, Anthony M. Kelley, began the concert with a foreword to the audience. Genial and sincere, Kelley shared that this program would include “emotions of the past, present, and future.” His vision for the evening’s concert was to help the audience navigate the cultural memory of Black Americans through the kaleidoscope of music. Enabling the audience’s agency, Kelley asked of us, “Let’s start with a memory; let’s remember” before exiting the stage and returning with the first performer of the evening, Dr. Albert Lee.

Dr. Lee is a vocalist with special penchant for creating memorable performances. I had the great privilege of learning from his artistry and teaching for several years during my undergraduate degree at the University of Nevada, Reno. Lee is known for his work preserving and expanding the performance of Negro Spirituals throughout his career and currently teaches at Yale University, where he is the inaugural Director of Equity, Belonging, and Student Life. Captivating and exceptionally expressive, Lee’s performances throughout the concert left few emotions unaffected.

An ode to its origins as an unaccompanied spiritual, Lee begins the first selection, “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” alone. Sonorous, mournful, and lonely, Lee’s voice filled the hall and weighed on the hearts of audience members. Absent of Lee’s rich singing, the little silences between verses felt shocking. After patiently awaiting his opportunity to accompany Lee’s voice, Kelley joined on piano, bringing with him a moment of added warmth and optimism. Highlighted on the stage together, the two created a perspective lens into the Black lived experiences in America. The repetition of the word “sometimes” felt burdensome, even inescapable. Resolving with a promising, hopeful major chord, Lee and Kelley set the stage for the poignant program to follow.

After the sound of delicate backstage tuning, violist Jonathan Bagg of the Ciompi Quartet succinctly introduced the selected excerpts from Five Folksongs in Counterpoint – a work where composer Florence Price (1887-1953) “flexes her contrapuntal muscles.” The Ciompi Quartet absolutely delivered on the musical intent of the composer. Intricate to a degree unlike any music from an American composer I had heard before, the warm yet characteristic voices of the ensemble wove in and out of Price’s sophisticated tapestry.

The evening proceeded with a lively collection of spirituals from the Duke Chorale, showcasing the reverence and passion of the Black spiritual style. Featuring several characteristic solos from ensemble bassist, Mathew Bao, and ensemble clarity emphasizing the lyrics of each work, the chorus showed off their real power in their rendition of the iconic “Joshua Fit de Battle of Jericho” (1935) arranged by J. Rosamond Johnson. Moving into the second half of the program, Lee was joined on stage with cellist Timothy Holley and composer William Banfield for Spirit Songs. After a familial and collaborative explanation of the piece from the composer and his colleague Kelley, Lee and Holley turned up the intensity with three duplicitous and revealing duets for tenor and cello. Taking charge, Lee exhibited multifaceted perspectives and complex emotions while the cello exposed unspoken, internal emotions often contrary to the message of the work’s lyrics. Following the impetuous conclusion of Spirit Songs, the North Carolina Central University Vocal Jazz Ensemble (led by Lenora Hammonds) took the stage. Immediately inviting and invigorating, the group relit the audience’s spirits. Their set included an electrifying solo from bassist Lance Scott Jr., a tender duet between Malik Hooks and Dupresha Townsend, and a confident and lyrical solo from Townsend in their penultimate number, “Conversation with God (Dear Lord)”

After an unrelenting program, the final piece by Olly Wilson (1937-2018) was the ultimate climax. Derived from the melody and lyrics of the first piece on the program, Lee’s performance of “Sometimes” had a steel grip on the audience. After a night of incredible lyricism, tenderness among friends, and vulnerability within a community, “Sometimes” began desolately. On an empty stage, lit as though deep underwater, the warbled sound of electronic murmuring echoed in the hall. A single light illuminated a small spot of stage left for soloist Lee. Isolated by the surrounding darkness and the eerie sonicscape, Lee’s powerful voice fearfully entered. Stuttering, incomplete, and deranged, the lyrics of the original spiritual forge their way forward as if banishing the malicious, mechanical sounds surrounding them. Rising out of the depths, Lee was shadowed by the muffled sound of drowned voices. Perhaps the electronic singing embodied the cautionary voices of the past or the equally isolated living, unable to find an audience for their agony. Moving in the darkness and emerging in a new spotlight center stage, Lee’s voice grew defiant, angry, and resistant to the tumult around him. As soon as Lee’s voice found footing against the raging cacophony, a droning ring silenced him. Moving again into the darkness and reappearing stage right, the soloist behaved as if robbed of his voice. Dr. Lee stood silently while the electronic voices harkened back to the obscurity of the beginning, although this time, the soloist’s voice became part of the horde. Seemingly defeated and returned to a state of stupor, Dr. Lee exited the stage, the lights dimmed again, and the voices faded away. The audience sat in an extended period of silence, while we reckoned with the masterpiece we had just witnessed. Finally, Lee returned to the stage, rousing us from our stillness for a round of thunderous applause.

I stuck around for some time after the concert to really soak in the storytelling from the evening. I felt incredibly appreciative of the artists throughout the night who so generously shared their narratives through the music they performed. I also felt a call to action – an affirmation that the arts and the lives of artists can only benefit from an inclusive, informed, and empowering cultural environment. Hopefully the leadership from the Duke Department of Music and the work of other institutions dedicated to change can help realize that goal.

The calendar of events for Duke’s Black Music Lab can be found at https://sites.duke.edu/blackmusiclab/events/.