Unanswered Question | Music and the National Mood

PostClassical Ensemble – the DC chamber orchestra I co-founded a dozen years ago – produced a concert at the Washington National Cathedral last Saturday night that seemed to address the national mood. These are fractious times – times in which the arts can acquire a special pertinence. Times in which music can be a provocation or a balm.

We titled our program “The Trumpet Shall Sound.” It intermingled spirituals with religious arias by Bach, Handel, and Mendelssohn. Our inspiration was the example of Harry Burleigh – who more than anyone else was responsible for transforming spirituals into art songs.

Burleigh – once Dvorak’s assistant at New York’s National Conservatory (1892-1895) — is a forgotten hero of American music. His seminal “Deep River” arrangement of 1915 electrified American audiences; it was instantly appropriated by preeminent white recitalists. It was later sung by Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson. It is still sung today.

Burleigh’s own recital repertoire also included songs by Beethoven, Faure, Grieg, Mendelssohn, Schubert, Schumann, and Tchaikovsky. Mendelssohn’s Elijah was a Burleigh specialty. Doubtless, for Burleigh all this music spoke a common language of uplift.

Our soloist at the Washington Cathedral was the African-American bass-baritone, Kevin Deas. I would say that he is today’s supreme exponent of spirituals in concert. He made his early career singing Bach and Handel. He came relatively late to Burleigh’s spiritual arrangements. For him the distance from Messiah to “Go Down, Moses” is inconsequential.

It has been my privilege to accompany Kevin Deas in concert for the past decade – but never before in such a vast and inspirational space. Burleigh himself advised that “success in singing these Folk Songs is primarily dependent upon deep spiritual feeling.” Kevin possesses a divinely mellifluous instrument (an audience member at one of our concerts confided, weeping, that she felt she had heard “the voice of God”). But his performances begin not with notes; they begin with feeling. I know from experience with other singers that an iota of ego is fatal in this repertoire. At the National Cathedral, the gravitas of the space informed all we did. My sense, on stage, was that the evening’s eighth number, Burleigh’s voice-and-piano arrangement of “Steal Away,” hypnotized the big room for good (the nave held nearly 1,000 listeners). It sounded like this:

After that, seamlessly (we proceeded without applause), came Nathaniel Dett’s galvanizing “Listen to the Lambs” with the Cathedral Choir, then Kevin Deas singing “For the Mountain Shall Depart” from Elijah, with PostClassical Ensemble led by Angel Gil-Ordonez. The evening built to Burleigh’s classic “Deep River” for mixed a cappella chorus, followed by two Messiah selections: “The Trumpet Shall Sound” and the Hallelujah Chorus.

But if there was a signature number, it may have been William Dawson’s arrangement of “There is a Balm in Gilead” – a piece Leontyne Price used to sing. Many with whom I spoke afterward had found the evening a necessary balm.

During the Cold War, the Kennedy White House famously hosted culture. JFK would talk about how the arts can only thrive in a harmonious “free society.” That was either naïve nonsense or cynical propaganda. The arts thrive in exigent times. In the twentieth century, the thirties and the sixties – the Depression, the Vietnam years — were decades remarkable for American artistic expression, decades in which music memorably voiced protest and compassion.

We may well be embarking on another such trying period in our nation’s history. In what ways will our musical institutions rise to the occasion? We shall see.