NY Phil Honors African-American Singers of Past

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Bass-baritone Eric Owens curated the New York Philharmonic tribute to African-American singers.
Bass-baritone Eric Owens curated the New York Philharmonic tribute to great African-American singers.
By David Shengold

NEW YORK — In a program Oct. 14 curated by bass-baritone Eric Owens, its artist in residence this season, the New York Philharmonic presented “In Their Footsteps: Great African-American Singers and their Legacy: A Tribute to Marian Anderson, Betty Allen, George Shirley and William Warfield.” It proved to be a festive and fine occasion, though it would have been good to see more listeners on hand to learn the history involved and to savor the achievements of some of the current inheritors of a considerable legacy.

 Eric Owens, Laquita Mitchell sang in tribute to great African-American singers. (Chris Lee)
Owens, Mitchell saluted great African-American singers. (Chris Lee)

Owens, with his proficiency in many styles of music, committed artistry, wide knowledge of the field, and genial manner, was an excellent choice for the residency. He won great acclaim for his spectacular performance with the Philharmonic in Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre in 2010 and has since appeared in fare as stylistically varied as Bach’s Mass in B minor, songs from Porgy and Bess, and the Verdi Requiem (alongside budding spinto tenor Russell Thomas, who sang an impressive “Ingemisco” as part of this concert).

Three batteries of videos incorporated brief snippets of the singers’ art — too brief, and not always ideally chosen, certainly not the very first, stemming from Anderson’s historic but threadbare 1955 Met Ulrica. (Fortunately, we heard part of her even more historic Lincoln Memorial National Anthem as well.) More stirring were comments by singers in the next two generations of African-American singers, including Donnie Ray Albert, Martina Arroyo, Harolyn Blackwell, Simon Estes, Denyce Graves, Florence Quivar, Morris Robinson, George Shirley, and Jubilant Sykes. Save for Robinson and Sykes, still in “full career” mode, all these artists are — strikingly — involved directly in the education of young singers. Soprano Blackwell spoke eloquently of “passing on the torch.”

William Warfield, Marian Anderson were recalled in tribute. (Carl Van Vechten)
William Warfield, Marian Anderson were recalled in tribute. (Carl Van Vechten)

Not much was said or shown at the event relating specifically to the four honored singers’ Philharmonic careers, but the program notes by James M. Keller shed light. All of them sang multiple times with the orchestra in a variety of musical styles. Juilliard-trained mezzo-soprano Betty Allen (1927-2009) was a particular favorite of Leonard Bernstein’s. (In this regard, it occurred to me that the program might also have paid tribute to the lyric soprano Adele Addison, now 90, an equally wide-ranging musician who performed and recorded extensively with the Philharmonic under Bernstein.)

The concert also honored George Shirley (Van Vechten photo) and Betty Allen.
The concert also honored George Shirley (Van Vechten photo) and Betty Allen.

Allen sang with the American Opera Society and City Opera (plus Thomson’s Commère at 1973’s “Mini-Met”), but she was in large part a concert artist. Her other signal contribution was as executive director, and later president, of the Harlem School of the Arts, founded by soprano Dorothy Maynor. Allen’s one-time student Yolanda Wyns, now the HSA’s program director of music, appeared in the video and also onstage, leading the superb Dorothy Maynor Singers (seven women and three men, youthful and sonorous) in an a cappella performance of “Ev’ry Time I Feel the Spirit,” one of the evening’s highlights. The chorus also joined the featured soloists in the rousing concluding number, the orchestrated version of Copland’s “Simple Gifts.”

Conductor Thomas Wilkins made his Philharmonic debut. It can’t have been, logistically, the easiest program to coordinate and rehearse, and indeed the initial selection, the jaunty overture from Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha, betrayed some iffy brass work and an overall tentative feeling. Things improved thereafter, but Wilkins did at times tend to overbalance the singers with loud tuttis. (At such a program, one could not help noticing that in the Philharmonic, as in most symphonic organizations in this country, African-American musicians remain underrepresented.)

Janai Brugger displayed a lovely lyric soprano and nuanced musicianship in the Bach-Gounod “Ave Maria.” She also offered wonderful work in Hall Johnson’s arrangement of “My God Is So High.” Laquita Mitchell showed an attractive presence and a voice having the right sensuality for Bess. But her words and pitch were somewhat indistinct in “The Sacred Tree,” Joplin’s aria for Monisha — the part Allen played with indomitable spirit when Houston Grand Opera’s Treemonisha came to Broadway and was recorded.

Conductor Wilkins, in NY Philharmonic debut, with Owens. (Chris Lee)
Conductor Wilkins, in NY Philharmonic debut, with Owens.

As Bess opposite Owens (as in San Francisco Opera’s recent DVD performance), Mitchell’s words hit home more, but she lacked what Leontyne Price called “the $10,000 ability on the F-sharp.” For Mitchell, cleanly negotiating the upper passaggio tends to be problematic. Owens also delivered a restrained, bemused “I Got Plenty of Nuttin’” and a stirring reading of another song strongly associated with Warfield, “Ol’ Man River.”

Tenor Thomas offered, besides the Verdi — in whose I masnadieri, Attila, and Simon Boccanegra he has scored successes — a clean, ringing-topped account of Remus’ sermon-like aria from Treemonisha, “Wrong is Never Right.” Thomas’ English diction is as distinct as that of Owens. Since Marietta Simpson was indisposed, the rising mezzo-soprano Deborah Nansteel appeared in her place. Nansteel, a frequent participant at the Glimmerglass Festival, created the role of Lucinda in Jennifer Higdon’s Cold Mountain last summer at the Santa Fe Opera. (Simpson is scheduled to reprise the part when Higdon’s opera comes to Opera Philadelphia in February.)

Understandably a bit nervous under the circumstances, Nansteel, score in hand, gave a pleasingly musical but not especially nuanced account of “Die zwei blauen Augen” from Songs of a Wayfarer, surely a tribute to Anderson’s eminence in Mahler orchestral works. Nansteel loosened up considerably for “On Ma Journey Now.” Her voice has an individual and characterful timbre, and her future seems bright.

Critic and lecturer David Shengold resides in Philadelphia and New York City; he regularly writes for Opera News, Opera, Opéra Magazine, Opernwelt, Playbill and many other venues, and has done program essays for companies including the Metropolitan, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Washington National Opera, ROH Covent Garden and the Wexford and Glyndebourne festivals.