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Patricia Saunders Nixon, Soprano & Geraldine T. Boone, Piano
Music by Hailstork, Burleigh, Adams, Bonds, Hogan, King & Work
First Baptist Church, Berkley, Norfolk, November 1, 2015
Review by John Campbell

As we waited for the concert to begin we looked at the beautiful, historic stained-glass panels installed behind the altar and lighted from behind. Curious, I asked about the history of the windows from a fellow listener. The windows had been in another church in downtown Norfolk that was demolished and the mayor had given them to First Baptist, Berkley. Online I learned that my informant was the current pastor, William D. Tyree III and son of the previous pastor (1962-1994) William D. Tyree, Jr. who had arranged to have the panels restored in Philadelphia and installed in the church.

In a pale aqua with silver-embroidery, African-style floor-length gown with headdress to match, Patricia Saunders Nixon opened with Adolphus Hailstork’s (b. 1941) Create in Me. Because of the wide range required, the piece is a vocal challenge at any time, more so as the first song of a recital. The message is “Open my lips that I may sing.” The second song, Amazing Grace, was by H. Leslie Adams (b. 1932), with a new melody and text: “Amazing grace surround me with your warm embrace and fill me with your love.”

Continuing the presentation of some of the finest art songs by African American composers with Ms. Boone at the white piano, we heard Theology by Betty Jackson King (1928-1994). The text is “There is a heaven...the upward longing of my soul doth tell me so...there is a hell, I’m quite sure, for pray, if it were not, where would my neighbors go?” This bit of profound humor was followed by Soliloquy by John W. Work III (1901-1967), a personal favorite of mine. The soothing message is “If death is half as sweet as life, I will not fear, I’ll shed no tear…”

The lyrical, flowing llullaby Night by Florence B. Price (1888-1953) speaks of night as a Madonna “clade in scented blue that lights the stars and lounges on a couch of shadows under her silver lamp, the moon. And we rest from the wearied day.” Ms. Nixon closed the set with another song by John Work, Dancing in the Sun, with text by Langston Hughes. It left us laughing and crying by turn. Hearing this familiar repertory done live and so well was quite a thrill.

Part II was four songs by Harry T. Burleigh (1866-1949). In several verses The Little House of Dreams offers a story of encouragement. In what is a conventional love song of his time, Just My Love and I!, the voice soars at the end. The consolation in Just a Wearyin’ for You builds in intensity to the end when the voice flares open. A song of deep faith, His Word is Love has a hymn-like tune of reassurance. Ms. Nixon is a Burleigh expert. Her dissertation, Harry T. Burleigh’s Art Songs: A Forgotten Repertory can be found at www.artsongupdate.org/Reviews/BurleighHarryT.htm/CelebratingHarryTBurleigh.htm

Appearing in a black, full-length gown with head uncovered, Ms. Nixon returned for Part III which was devoted to spirituals arranged by African American composers. He Never Said Mumbalin’ Word set by Moses Hogan captured the depth of the pain of the crucifixion and was sung with power and pathos. New to this writer was Peter On De Sea, Sea, Sea, Sea by J. Rosamund Johnson (1873-1954), a charming relief after the song about the Crucifixion. Cert’n’y, Lord (Hall Johnson, arr. Julius Williams) is a statement of faith: “Do you love everybody? Have you been baptised, redeemed, and feel like shouting?” Followed by the most popular of Margaret Bonds’ (1913-1972) songs, He’s Got the Whole World in His Hand. Near the end the singer slowed the words to a stately pace: “He’s got everybody in his hands.”

Dr. Nixon opened Part IV with Beams of Heaven (arr. Robert Winder, Jr.) with the 20-member choir and organist Keith Q. Bailey on stage. The organ made a musical space punctuated by the piano and Dr. Nixon laid aside classical rules and become a gospel diva but delivered the text gently and never over-extended the voice. The text was clear. Five minutes into the song the singer released the choir and the energy blossomed. The congregation engaged completely in the heart-to-heart communication and there was perfect quiet before she sang The Name of Jesus arranged by Nixon and Bailey. “Jesus how sweet the name” was repeated with variations in an intimate delivery of text. When the choir sang Ms. Nixon sang a high part above. In the ending “I’ll get home someday” Ms. Nixon riffed on “someday.”

The piano leads in the Finale/We Shall Behold Him (arr. David T. Clydesdale). The singer’s small, controlled sound with the organ added a sense of mystery. This restraint built an inner passion as the humming of the choir wrapped around the quiet, urgently delivered text. I melted as she redoubled her energy at the end, singing “We shall behold our Savior and Lord.” The audience reacted with fervor and husband Jimmy Nixon brought her a bouquet of pink roses.

Tidewater Area Musicians, formed in 1919, is the local branch of the National Association of Negro Musicians, Inc. and presented this, their first program of music entirely written by black composers because “they just love music.” In this setting with their support Patricia Saunders Nixon reached a new level of polished vocal performance.

Ms. Nixon had firm control of her vocal resources but as with all sopranos her high legato lines sometimes obscured the text. This could be remedied by inserting a text sheet in the program for the classical repertory.

Women, War and Worship
Music by Rich Moriarty
Christ and St. Luke's, November 22, 2015
Review by M.D. Ridge

There was a very full house November 22 at Christ & St. Luke’s Church in Norfolk for the premiere of two major vocal works by Richard Moriarty. The composer, formerly chief of pathology at Sentara Healthcare and Department Chair at Eastern Virginia Medical School, retired ten years ago in order to study serious classical music.

His study has paid off—bigtime.

First on the program was We That Wait, Moriarty’s setting of seven poems from the Civil War, written mostly by women, and sung by renowned mezzo soprano Robynne Redmon, with Stephen Coxe at the piano. Emily Dickinson’s “We Went as Soldiers” began with slow, measured, insistent piano, with long, held lines for the soprano’s attack. Walt Whitman’s “Beat! Beat! Drums!” went from driving, dissonant chords to a more lyrical passage, then back to driving dissonance that underscored the text. Redmon’s recitative on “We Have Parted,” a poem by Portsmouth native Ella Wren, states bleakly that memory cannot restore a happy past. On the phrase “all is over, all is over,” the piano tolled like a death knell. For another Dickinson poem, “They Dropped Like Flakes,” the piano had its own melody, “walking through memory,” while Redmon brought solemn poignancy to the lines, “They perished in the Seamless Grass . . . but God . . . Can summon every face.”

The textual sentimentality of “Somebody’s Darling,” by Marie Ravenal de La Coste, could have been schmaltzy, but Moriarty attacked it and turned it on end, using strident dissonance to evoke the mortal horror of young men in war. There’s a softer, gentler passage in the middle and at the end, while the piano echoed muted dissonance. It was an amazing piece, given fierce passion by Redmon and Coxe.

One of Dickinson’s more familiar poems, “After Great Pain,” had stark musical images; Coxe and Redmon handled the dramatic dynamics with ease. The final line— “Then the letting go” ended on a long, long, high note. “Prayer of Peace,” by “An Anonymous Lady of New Orleans,” evokes the weary sadness of long war. The final line, “the land we dearly love,” rose to a high last note as if in a question.

Old Dominion University’s Diehn Chorale, a 20-voice select choral group, under the direction of assistant director Jane Trahan, performed “E’en So, Lord Jesus, Quickly Come,” an Advent motet composed by Paul Manz, with lyrics adapted from Revelation by Ruth Manz. The Chorale had a lovely blend, which also shone like crystal prisms reflecting light and color in Eric Whittaker’s gorgeous Lux Aurumque, which was directed by ODU’s Dr. Nancy Kirkland Klein.

Adsum! A Mass Celebrating Women in the Church was a tour de force, whose title comes from the Roman rite of ordination when candidates are called by name and answer “Adsum—Present!” It was sung with passion and beauty by the combined forces of the ODU Concert Choir, the Diehn Chorale and Schola Cantorum of Virginia, with soloists Robynne Redmon, baritone Christopher Mooney and James W. Kosnik, organist.

The nine movements built on the traditional Latin Mass. Directed by Klein, the Kyrie began with the organ’s deep, muted tones that built and grew insistent; Redmon intoned the text which became a poignant prayer for “lost vocations” as the chorus swelled. The Gloria’s brooding organ shifted to Redmon’s lyrical “Laudamus;” Mooney sang “Glory to God for your first Risen Word, ‘Maria’” and the chorus sang her response, “Rabboni.” The combined chorus had excellent crisp initial consonants—not easy with such a large group.

Agnes Mobley-Wynne, director of the Schola Cantorum, conducted the Creed, in which Mooney declaimed, as God, “See! I am doing something new!” The fourth movement began with low, repeated organ notes, rising, measured to the repeated Adsum on a falling line, repeated again and again by the chorus. In the Magnificat, the organ shimmered underneath a dialog between men and women—“God calls us by name.”

Klein returned to the podium for the stunning—and difficult— Sanctus, which featured striking, unusual rhythms for organ and chorus, and rising waves of Hosannas. “Do this in remembrance of me” was a lovely duet between Redmon and Mooney, ending with overlapping waves of choral sound. In the Agnus Dei, the composer incorporated the words of Juliana of Norwich—“All will be well, and all manner of thing will be well.”

An organ blast heralded the dismissal rite, “Ite Missa Est,” with full chorus going full tilt, repeating the falling line of “Adsum,” and ending with a joyful, triumphant “Alleluia! Gloria!” The audience leapt to its feet with roars of appreciation.

Way to go, Dr. Moriarty. Way to go!

This review was originally broadcast on WHRO 90.3 FM’s “From the other side of the Footlights.”

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