Soprano Del Fionn Sykes
Violinist Gena J. Payne, Pianist Oksana Lutsyshyn
Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, March 12, 2017
Review by John Campbell

From 2005-2013, Del Sykes lived in Germany performing as soloist with orchestras, vocal ensembles and TV shows. Her challenge after returning to Tidewater was to readjust her large, powerful voice to recital format.

The recital titled “A Celebration of Women Though Music: Spirituals, Art Songs and Jazz,” included spoken biographies of the composers of each song—all women. She opened with Is there anybody Here Loves My Jesus by Undine Smith Moore (1904-1989) but only after she had sung a spontaneous a cappella This Little Light of Mine. Sung slowly, it set the mood for the vocal displays to come.

Fortunately African American women in the 20th century have created a body of appealing art songs for singers to draw on in recital. Calvary by Betty Jackson King (1928-1994) showcased Ms. Sykes mezzo range supported by a strong piano opening. The word “Calvary” was repeated a number of times, leading to “blood a-flowing, surely he died on Calvary” with dramatic power. My Soul's Been Anchored in the Lord was set by Florence B. Price (1888-1953). The first black woman to receive recognition as composer, there are over 300 neo-romantic compositions are in her catalog. Ms. Sykes' abrupt high operatic ending was most effective.

On the program these early songs were listed under arranged spirituals followed by art songs. This convention is an arbitrary division that should be eliminated. When Beethoven or Haydn set English or Scottish text songs they are not called arrangements.

Margaret Bonds (1913-1972) set several texts by her life-long friend, the famous Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes (1902-1967) and we heard I, Too from Three Dream Portraits. Before she sang, Ms. Sykes read Hughes' poem I Dream a World, where Black people are accepted just as people. I, Too speaks of the black servant having to eat in the kitchen when company comes. There she dreams of the day when her beauty will be recognized—a day far in the future. This was followed by The Negro Speaks of Rivers. Here the singer captures the grandeur of the text: “My soul has grown deep like the rivers” as Hughes wrote of black people's connection to the pyramids near the Nile River and the singing of the Mississippi. There was an Ivesian lyricism in Ms. Lutsyshyn's piano.

Expanding boundaries into jazz, Ms. Sykes introduced Gina J. Payne, a retired teacher from the Newport News school system. She played In My Solitude by Duke Ellington, a jazz standard made famous by Billy Holiday on Decca Records (1934), as a jazzy improvisation on electric violin. Unfortunately it was ear-splittingly load. Because of the superb acoustics created by the church's barrel vault ceiling, even after Ms. Payne adjusted the sound level it was still an unpleasantly loud experience.

After intermission, Ms. Sykes and Ms. Payne presented an intriguing set from La Voix de Mers (The Voice of the Seas). The composer, Mfa Kera, was born in Madagascar and grew-up in Senegal. Ms Sykes met her in Germany. A recorded sound track by arranger and instrumentalist Reinhard Katemann accompanied the live performers for voice and violin. The composition has seven movements that musically depict major historical events, beginning in Africa before the onset of the slave trade. The voice of Mama Africa (written for a classically trained singer) is the oral story teller expressing pain, suffering, separations, injustice and hope. It is accompanied by strings, keyboard and talking drums.

We heard three sections: Hum Hum Drums, Mama Africa Remembers, which tells of the lost children who were shipped to North America as slaves and Axe Bahia that incorporated many styles. There was a sense of rolling waves of sound with Ms. Sykes' voice floating above it all. Axe Bahia felt Brazilian and African with a rock beat and text of a letter the girl sent to her mother after being enslaved in South America. It became a song of deliverance performed with great passion.

After the concert Ms. Sykes expressed concern that her microphone was not working. I assured her that her natural voice was in perfect balance with the amplified instrumentals in the final set.

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