A remarkable concert – remarkable in several respects – was presented on the evening of January 22 in the sanctuary of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Raleigh. The event was the third in a series of offerings at UUFR….

The artists were mezzo-soprano Dorthea L. Taylor and pianist Louise Toppin. Both are based at ECU, where Taylor works in the Music Library (while awaiting “discovery,” surely) and Toppin serves as a Professor of Voice – she is Taylor’s teacher. Toppin is a distinguished singer in her own right, as many CVNCers know; her skill at the keyboard is less widely celebrated, but she comes by it honestly and academically, too!

The program was confined to spirituals – spirituals by “the Contemporary Composers,” the program advised. It is apparently a follow-up to an earlier series of concerts that were devoted to older settings of spirituals. Hearing the two in close proximity might be instructive, but as it was, some things were clear throughout. In settings by seven contemporary masters of the art form – Roland Carter, Cedric Dent (whose Take 6 ensemble recently appeared at Duke), Marvin Mills, Uzee Brown, Hale Smith, George Walker, and Robert Morris – the melodic lines were left pretty much untouched and unaltered. So, too, were the texts, although some were abbreviated and most settings did not use all the known words. The big differences in these settings, as opposed to more familiar ones of many of the selections, was in the accompaniments, which ranged from bare-bones to thick in the manner of, say, Liszt – and which also ran the gamut of styles, from more or less “traditional” to fairly up-to-the-minute (albeit still largely tonal) 20th-century fare. Throughout the short program, the partnership enjoyed by the two guest artists was constantly evident – they worked admirably together and on their own, too, in those moments when the singer or the pianist took more or less “solo” turns.

The concert’s big numbers were Four Spirituals by Hale Smith – “Jesus, Lay Your Head in the Window,” “Let Us Break Bread Together,” “This Little Light of Mine,” and “Witness” – and Robert Morris’ Lyric Suite, a substantial five-part set of “spirituals in gospel style” that would be welcome on other programs. These works and the several singletons that were also offered – Carter’s “Is There Anybody Here?,” Dent’s “Soon One Morn’,” Mills’ “Roll, Jordan Roll,” Brown’s “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning” and “Over My Head I Hear Music in the Air,” and three more by Walker (“Mary Wore Three Links of Chain,” “I Got a Letter from Jesus,” and “Every Time I Feel the Spirit”) – were rapturously received by the small but enthusiastic audience, which applauded every number – marring to some extent the probable full impact of the two larger offerings. Still, the spirit shone forth in all, thanks to the radiant singing, the vocalist’s immaculate diction, and the outstanding accompaniments. Taylor may have been dealing with a cold – there were some somewhat abrupt breaks in the vocal line in a few places (but it’s possible this was intentional, for dramatic effect). Toppin demonstrated that she’s a superb pianist – she was constantly in tune with the singer she partnered.

One might have wanted something else – a big operatic or oratorio number (perhaps by Still or Dett, who would have counted as “contemporary” composers) – but in retrospect it was enough – more than enough – and the concert delivered what it promised – and it wasn’t even February! Look for a repeat of this program, which will surely turn up elsewhere in NC this season. It’s worth a drive from out of town!

P.S. The spiritual cited in the title of this review – “Wade in the Water” – wasn’t sung….