The journey of the American Spiritual Ensemble represents something of a mission for Everett McCorvey, one with a simple but enduring purpose at its core.
As the group’s founder and leader, as well as music director for the University of Kentucky Opera Theatre, he simply wants audiences to understand the history of the music it promotes. To put it in a finer context, he wants to spread the word on the difference between the spirituals making up the ensemble’s repertoire and gospel music. There is also the matter of the centuries and legacies separating them.
If audiences haven’t yet made that distinction, they will this weekend when the group collaborates with internationally-acclaimed soprano Kathleen Battle for a program entitled Underground Railroad: A Spiritual Journey at the EKU Center for the Arts.
“I think we have done really exciting work in helping to get the spirituals into a different category, which was my goal, so that it was not seen as the same as gospel music,” McCorvey said last week from St. Paul, Minn, where the American Spiritual Ensemble was in the midst of a spring tour, which also includes a concert of its own in Lexington on April 25. “I view spirituals as the mother music.
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“We were at Luther College (in Iowa) and before that, Concordia College (in Minnesota), which are both huge choral schools with huge choral traditions. I was very rewarded with the fact that both institutions, both choirs, sang spirituals on a regular basis. So I think we’re making headway. I still think that there are a lot of people who don’t know the difference between gospel music and spirituals. With over 6,000 spiritual melodies out there, there is still a lot of performing that can be done and a lot of spirituals to champion.”
For the record, spirituals were born in this country by slaves, as singing and attending church were among their few freedoms. Separated from their families and forbidden to speak in their native languages, slaves created songs out of hymns and their own melodies as a means to communicate through song. Gospel was a direct outgrowth of spiritual music, appropriately elements of blues, rhythm and blues and even pre-bluegrass country music for worship as well as entertainment.
“These spirituals were created during a difficult time in our American history. The result is that they all tell stories. They have these hauntingly beautiful melodies, but these melodies tell a story. What amazes me is the depth of the stories that happen in these spirituals. We’ve been working on these arrangements for the concert with Kathy Battle, and they are just glorious. They are beautiful.”
Battle shares an appreciation for the cultural depth and importance of spirituals. Her Underground Railroad program is devoted to them. More importantly, it is with this very program that Battle will perform for the Metropolitan Opera, with a different choir, this November, her first appearance there since being dismissed by the company in 1994 for “unprofessional actions” during rehearsals.
“I think one of the testaments to the popularity of spirituals is the fact that the Met is bringing her back to sing this program,” McCorvey said.
“Kathleen Battle is one of the most amazing sopranos of our generation. She is a household name all over the world, so it is a complete honor to be able to collaborate with her on this project.”
McCorvey paralleled Battle’s artistic importance to the career of the great 20th century contralto Marian Anderson, whose repertoire also extended to spirituals. The American Spiritual Ensemble honored Anderson last weekend on the 77th anniversary of the singer’s 1939 concert at the Lincoln Memorial before an Easter Sunday crowd of 75,000.
Anderson’s performance made international headlines because she had been banned from singing at Constitution Hall by the Daughters of the American Revolution.
“Eleanor Roosevelt was a member of the DAR but arranged for Marian Anderson to sing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. She opened the concert with My Country Tis of Thee, so we sang that on our concert as a commemoration.
“So for many African-American singers, Kathy Battle is in the lineage of the great African-American opera singers. But in her case, as it was with Marian Anderson, it’s not just the fact that she’s African-American. She is one of the great singers of out time. So it’s quite humbling to be able to share the stage with her.”
Read Walter Tunis’ blog, The Musical Box, at LexGo.com.
If You Go
Program: Underground Railroad: A Spiritual Journey with Joel A. Martin and the American Spiritual Ensemble
When: 7:30 p.m. April 16
Where: EKU Center for the Arts, 1 Hall Drive in Richmond
American Spiritual Ensemble
Program: The ensemble in concert to benefit the Music for Mission program
When: 7:30 p.m. April 25
Where: First Presbyterian Church, 174 N. Mill St.
Tickets: Not required but do guarantee seating. Call 859-252-1919. Tickets are free.