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Singing group combines musical history and historical spirituality

Singing group combines musical history and historical spirituality
(Photo: Tony Irving)

Singing group combines musical history and historical spirituality

The cadences, language and uplift of black spirituals have influenced every form of art in America and spread from the pulpits of preachers to the podiums of politicians.

Born of enslaved African Americans, black spirituals were the first original music of a new nation. Sustaining this music as a living oral tradition is the New England Spiritual Ensemble.

Founded in 1994, the Ensemble has been performing traditional African American spirituals and gospel music throughout the region for 15 years. This all-volunteer professional ensemble models itself after the 19th-century Fisk Jubilee Singers, who first brought the spirituals sung by African American slaves to the concert stage.

In 1871, the small troupe of classically trained students traveled from their financially struggling school in Nashville — founded to educate former slaves — to give concerts that eventually raised enough money to fund its transition into Fisk University. After their first grueling tour, the group catapulted to world fame in Boston the following year.

Performing at the 1872 World Peace Jubilee, the first major U.S. musical production open to black participants, they stood before 20,000 singers and a 2,000-piece orchestra and delivered a masterful rendering of the abolitionist anthem, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” World tours followed, with stops at royal courts and other great halls.

The New England Spiritual Ensemble has also toured overseas, but this past weekend, its itinerary crossed the Charles rather than the Atlantic. On Sunday, Aug. 2, the Ensemble performed at Longfellow National Historic Site in Cambridge. The day before, the New England Spiritual Ensemble Youth Chorus gave its debut concert at Deliverance Temple Church of God in Dorchester.

Ensemble member Allyssa Jones, co-chair of the music department of Boston Arts Academy, led the 15 students, who just completed the Ensemble’s first summer program for young people. In September, the Ensemble will begin a year-round version of the program, which serves students in the Boston Public Schools.

As they practice techniques of musicianship and study the repertoire, the students also learn about the sacrifices and achievements of those who first sang spirituals, including the Fisk Jubilee Singers and the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment. One of the first official black units in the U.S. military, these former slaves fought with heroic valor in the Union Army during the Civil War.

“They were sent into a battle by commanders who knew that it was almost hopeless and endured high casualties,” said Jones.

The young people also discover resources to strengthen their own lives.

“Spirituals are our tonic and lifeblood,” said Jones. “Our primary purpose with this program is not to just have lovely children singing lovely songs. The urgency of this project is about providing space for students to build community and recognize their possibilities.”

The students take the Black Heritage Trail from its start at the Massachusetts 54th Regiment memorial across from the State House to its last stop, the African Meeting House on Joy Street. Built in 1806, the structure is the oldest known black church in the U.S.

They also visit the storied Twelfth Baptist Church and Charles Street A.M.E. Church in Roxbury, both originally in the African American settlement on the south slope of Beacon Hill. In the early 1950s, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was a minister at Twelfth Baptist Church, where he met his future wife, Coretta Scott, then studying at the New England Conservatory of Music.

The Ensemble is a group of conservatory-trained professional musicians. Most pursue other careers as well. Myran Parker-Brass, Ensemble co-founder and manager, directs education and community programs at the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Eleven-year member Milton L. Wright Jr. grew up in the projects of Miami, where he and his five siblings sang in local churches. A songwriter, composer and playwright, Wright was first justice of the Roxbury District Court until February, when he retired after a 16-year career as a Boston judge.

Orlando Lightfoot is a professor of psychiatry at the Boston University School of Medicine. Donnell Patterson is director of music at Belmont Hill School and Joei Marshall Perry is a classical soloist with a Master of Music degree in opera performance from the Longy School of Music. Christina DeVaughn is a management consultant with a master’s degree in opera performance from Boston Conservatory.

“We bring to performances our knowledge as musicians of how to present a piece of music, what it needs to come alive,” said Parker-Brass. “And as African Americans, we bring our deep understanding of where this music came from. Many of us learned these songs from our grandmothers.”

Unlike its blues-inflected offspring, gospel music, traditional spirituals are the legacy of an oral tradition without known composers. And instead of the heavy instrumentation that often accompanies gospel music, spirituals are often sung a cappella with the call-and-response structure of West African music.

Community translated into musical form, this structure revels in the power of the unaccompanied human voice as well as the surging energy of an ensemble. A sort of congregation in miniature, Parker-Brass and her fellow singers interweave their distinct voices, each with its individual timbre, into embroidered overlays of sound that alternatively showcase solos and blend into one deep swell of sound.

Distilling Bible stories into personal and collective prayers and anthems, spirituals use short, forceful words and rhythmic phrases, riffs that sustain a continuous interplay of repetition and change.

No two performances of a spiritual are entirely the same. Each is an intricate, irresistible combination of drilling rhythms, precise vocal acrobatics and free-form arabesques of sound.

With each rehearsal and performance, the Ensemble renews a living oral tradition that is their inheritance, and makes it their own.

Six of the seven who performed at Longfellow House convened earlier in the week for a rehearsal at Myrtle Baptist Church in West Newton. They included Jones, Parker-Brass and Wright as well as Cynthia Harmon, Davron Munroe and David C. Howse.

“We’re like siblings,” said Howse, executive director of the Boston Children’s Chorus, whose hometown relatives in Murfreesboro, Tenn., attended Fisk University.

The Ensemble makes all of its decisions, including choices of repertoire, by consensus, said Parker-Brass, this musical family’s ebullient matriarch.

“What makes us so successful is that group dynamic,” she said.

Philadelphia native Cynthia Harmon came to Boston to obtain a master of music degree in vocal performance from the New England Conservatory. An opera and oratorio performer and assistant head of school at Park School in Brookline, she has been member of the Ensemble since 1995.

“We come from different parts of the country, and different faiths, but we share this heritage of spirituals,” said Harmon. “The Ensemble lets me explore this heritage on a level that honors all the education I have had in music.”

 “The concert tradition of spirituals demands vocal dexterity, agility, nuance,” said Howse. But the Ensemble has a unique place in the musical careers of the members, who perform in other genres such as opera and musical theater.

“There’s a different energy here,” said Howse. “I’m not trying to outdo others. And here, I’m not playing Faust. I’m being myself.”

The Ensemble recreates traditional arrangements, as well as those by modern composers such as John Andrew Ross (1940-2006), who chaired the Department of Music at the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts, and from 1970 until his death directed the annual production of “Black Nativity” by the National Center of Afro-American Artists. In 1997, the Ensemble released its first CD, “Comin’ Up Shouting!,” with arrangements by Ross.

The singers savor the open vowel sounds associated with spirituals, which emulate the idiomatic speech of their original singers. Shaping open vowels relaxes the singer’s mouth and jaw and positions the tongue at the base of mouth, allowing an easy, open flow of air. Offering an example, Wright said, “Instead of ‘I’m going home,’ we sing, ‘Ahm goin’ home.’”

As the ensemble rehearsed a John Andrew Ross arrangement of “Nobody’s Fault but Mine,” the newest member of their musical family, Davron S. Monroe, took a solo. A young man with a slight build and an enormously expressive face, Monroe holds a Master’s of Music in opera performance from the Longy School of Music.

Often cast in the roles of wayward characters — he played Judas in “Jesus Christ Superstar” and Cain in “Children of Eden” — he was nattily dressed in a vest and a shirt and tie with red and white checks on this muggy evening. He concluded the spiritual with a meandering string of bonus notes, prompting an audible ripple of delight from his fellow singers.

“He was singing his face off,” said Jones. “We were hearing our future. We were thinking, ‘Now there’s 10 of us — oh boy!’”