Photo by Matt Hembree
By Alena Churikova
February 9 through 11, Sewanee hosted the American Spiritual Ensemble, an amazing vocal group consisting of soloists and seasoned opera performers from the Metropolitan New York City, Boston, Atlanta, and San Francisco Civic Operas.
The group was created in 1995 by Everett McCorvey, a soloist tenor, director of opera at the University of Kentucky, and artistic director of the National Chorale. He created the group to preserve traditional Negro spirituals which constitute the roots of American musical culture. However, his American Spiritual Ensemble boasts a much wider repertoire than Negro spirituals, from gospel to Broadway and classic opera. Fortunately, all these styles were represented in the program that the ensemble prepared for this tour.
Every member of the group has a tight schedule, as they are all involved in different art organizations throughout the U.S., but they all gathered together for a one-and-a-half week tour. Sewanee should be proud to be the first location in the tour’s route and the only place where the ensemble is scheduled to perform three days in a row.
This first performance was on the morning of Thursday, February 9. The ensemble was greeted by members of the university faculty and then sang with the Sewanee Elementary School fifth-grade class and the vocal ensemble of St Andrew’s-Sewanee School.
On the next day, the members of the ensemble collaborated with another music organization on campus— the Sewanee Symphony Orchestra. Guerry Auditorium was filled up with audience members, many of whom came from nearby towns to hear the American Spiritual Ensemble’s take on George Gershwin’s famous opera, Porgy and Bess. The soloists of the ensemble presented beautiful arias followed by comments of Dan Backlund explaining what is happening on the stage for those who are not familiar with the plot.
The second part of the concert included songs by George Gershwin, Fats Waller, and Duke Ellington. Jazz tunes for four to five soloists interchanged with the sound of the whole ensemble singing together as a choir. After the performance, McCorvey remarked that there were some changes in the program order. “When we planned the program several months ago we did not know that freedom was gonna be an issue in the country. It all has a new meaning now” said McCorvey. Therefore, the last piece of the concert was the song “It’s Freedom” from Duke Ellington’s Second Sacred Concert. The word Freedom, sounding in this piece in different languages, made the end of the concert even more remarkable and meaningful.
The last performance on the night of Saturday, February 11, happened at All Saints’ Chapel. Unlike the previous evening’s show, which was more jazzy and classic, the concert at the chapel was very spiritual. “Give Me Jesus” (Calesta Day, soprano) and “Stand the Storm” (Jeryl Cunningham-Fleming) were especially touching. Matthew Truss’s performance of “There Is a Man Going Round,” and his unique voice earned him the longest applause of the concert. The voices of soprano Hope Keuhler in “Cert’nly Lawd” and mezzo Sabrina Carten in “Circle of Life” sounded the most powerful and completely filled the chapel. Tenor Chauncey Packer captivated the audience with his portrayal of the character Sportin’ Life from Porgy and Bess the day before, and on Saturday he again made people smile with his charming and vivid interpretation of the “Dry Bones” song.
Sewanee Praise, the Schola of the School of Theology, the Sewanee Chorale, the University Choir, and the SAS ensemble performed alongside the ensemble, singing “Keep Marchin’ ‘Til I Make It Home”.
“Sitting in the crowd and watching the singers perform in All Saint’s was amazing! They each had such amazing voices, and apart from that they all were very expressive. It was a beautiful performance and I’d like Sewanee to host more of these in the future” shared Ashley Rodriquez (C’17).
Alyson Lily Carr (C’17), a member of Sewanee choir remarked “It was an absolute honor to get to sing with such a talented group of musicians! The show in All Saints was so powerful, and to be a part of it even briefly meant so much. Their sound in that space was a joy to hear, and I know I can’t be the only one who feels that way.”
After the concert there was a reception in Convocation Hall where the audience could buy CDs and talk to the musicians.