Star Tribune WITNESS Review: Choirs give voice to the voiceless
VocalEssence and four choirs combined their voices to reflect the pain of slaves who sang of redemption.
By WILLIAM RANDALL BEARD, Special to the Star Tribune
March 6, 2011 – According to composer and conductor Andre Thomas, when choirs perform spirituals, they need to understand both the joy of the music and the pains of the slave trade.
He led this year’s VocalEssence “Witness” concert Friday night at Minneapolis’ Orchestra Hall, where the St. Olaf Choir and the combined choruses from St. Paul Central High School, Minneapolis Washburn High School and Hastings High School joined the VocalEssence Chorus.
Thomas began with a deeply personal evocation of the slave trade, setting the music to come in context. His arrangements, and the performances he inspired, raised one’s understanding and engagement with this music to a whole new level.
With his arrangements, he gave each selection its own unique aural signature, from the earthiness of an African chant in “African Noel,” to the full-bodied harmonies of “Deep River,” from the simplicity of the spiritual “I Open My Mouth” to the rocking gospel of “Go Where I Send Thee.” A change of pace was his romantic rendition of the traditional English folk song “Barbara Allen.”
VocalEssence artistic director Philip Brunelle, associate conductor Sigrid Johnson and St. Olaf director Anton Armstrong were represented on the podium, but the star was Thomas. It’s not surprising, given Thomas’ dazzling work, that once Brunelle’s stint was over, he went into the audience to enjoy.
The VocalEssence Chorus performed with its usual consummate professionalism. The St. Olaf Choir felt like a pastel after VocalEssence’s oils, but they created a pure tone and a disciplined sound.
Particularly impressive were the joint high school choirs, admirably holding their own in this company.
The final set brought together the massed choir, 400 voices strong, that sent the heart soaring, not just from sheer volume, but from the restrained beauty of the sound.
Thomas was also represented as a composer, and his original compositions were among the highlights of the evening. With “Hold Fast to Dreams,” he created a lyrical melody that was as inspirational as the Langston Hughes poem it set.
Thomas spoke of the transformative power of music when introducing the song that was his response to the Sept. 11 attacks, “I Dream a World,” setting another Hughes poem. He wore his generous heart on his sleeve, creating music that was transformative indeed.
William Randall Beard writes about theater.