Pioneer Press: VocalEssence, Andre Thomas let the spirit flow
By Rob Hubbard
Special to the Pioneer Press, 03/04/2011
Andre Thomas is an inspiring man. He’s devoted his career to teaching young Americans not only how to sing traditional African-American spirituals, but about the history and evolution of the songs, as well, which involves confronting a lot of troubling truths.
He’s the kind of admirable figure who deserves an evening-length showcase for his music. And the Minneapolis-based choral group VocalEssence obliged Friday night at Orchestra Hall, making Thomas’ compositions and arrangements of spirituals the focus of its annual “Witness” concert of music by African-American composers. Showcasing the talents of the VocalEssence Chorus, the St. Olaf Choir and the combined forces of three Twin Cities-area high school choirs, it was an uplifting experience.
And that’s what Thomas’ music is all about: Lifting up listeners. He clearly sees the optimistic lyrics and bouncing beats of the spirituals as a tool that can inspire discouraged young people into not surrendering hope, just as they did for the slaves who taught them to each other in centuries past. But Thomas’ arrangements aren’t about imitating an archaic sound: They’re very much in tune with the style of contemporary American choral music, only intermittently employing the rocking rhythms found in Southern gospel tabernacles.
Which made them a good fit for this collection of Minnesota choirs. In some ways, it’s a shame that the hosting VocalEssence Chorus chose to bat leadoff, for its performances were the deepest and most satisfying of the evening. The group’s velvet harmonies on the slow and soothing “Deep River” may have been the concert’s high point, followed closely by an exhilarating “Go Where I Send Thee,” on which Thomas laid down some boogie-woogie piano beneath the harmonies.
The St. Olaf Choir also was strong, particularly on a setting of Langston Hughes’ poem, “Hold Fast to Dreams,” that sounded like an articulate distillation of Thomas’ life’s work. Before conducting it, Thomas dedicated it to the boys of Ramsey County’s Totem Town youth correctional facility, which he’d visited the previous day. It made the music all the more powerful, as did many of Thomas’ other introductions.
Thomas’ arrangements have such a bright tone that one might wonder if they give short shrift to the despair of those who sang these songs for so long. But when the combined choirs of St. Paul Central, Minneapolis Washburn and Hastings high schools were shouting out “Keep your lamps trimmed and burning,” it was clear that Thomas’ inspirational message was the most important thing to deliver.
Rob Hubbard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.