CSO Spiritual Ensemble Offers Fresh Cultural Treasure

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I’ve loved spirituals ever since I sang some simple arrangements of them with my very first choir, as a fifth-grade boy soprano. Even though I knew nothing at the time of the genre’s roots, I instinctively felt that no other music we sang held such sad yearning, gripping emotion or downright exuberance. Since then, my personal musical journey has brought me ever closer to them, both as a singer and a music writer.

I read with great interest of the spiritual’s colonial-era origins, when music was perhaps the only means of expression that an enslaved people could call their own. And I learned that spirituals stand as one of the main pillars of American musical culture — alongside the many other Afro-American styles (ragtime, blues, jazz) that have influenced our nation’s unique contributions to the world of music. Whether you’re black, white, or of any other cultural origin, spirituals belong to all Americans.

I was thus delighted to learn last year of the formation of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra Spiritual Ensemble: a select sub-ensemble from the CSO’s popular Gospel Choir. Charleston already has a well-known spiritual choir — the Society for the Preservation of Spirituals — that honorably strives to sustain the old spiritual tradition. But it’s mostly a bunch of genteel, historically sincere white folks who perform spirituals much as they were sung in their heyday: very simply, and with little harmonic or rhythmic sophistication.

But spirituals have inspired many gifted composers to transform them into mainstream choral music — and none of them did a better job of that than Moses Hogan (1957-2003). His untimely passing deprived the world of its finest arranger of spirituals; nobody else — before or since — has matched his achievements in elevating the genre to modern levels of classical complexity and sophistication, while preserving its hallmark characteristics and boosting its appeal to singers and listeners alike. When I learned that Charleston’s new Spiritual Ensemble was slated to perform an entire program of Hogan’s arrangements to celebrate their first anniversary, I knew that nothing could keep me away.

I’ve heard this group — a true rainbow coalition — twice before: in their appearance last fall in the Charleston International Festival of Choirs, as well as in a prior rehearsal. I was immediately struck — not only by their fabulous sound and spirit — but by the way their gifted director, Nathan L. Nelson, held them to high standards of rhythmic precision, dynamic variety and tone production. And last Saturday’s concert at Trinity United Methodist Church revealed even further growth and refinement as a performing entity.

I can hardly imagine another group that could — or would — handle sixteen Hogan arrangements (almost all of them a cappella) in a single concert: they are NOT easy to sing. We heard many of the best of them: from relatively subdued pieces like “Hear my Prayer” and “There is a Balm in Gilead” to rock-‘em-sock-‘em numbers like “The Battle of Jericho” and “Elijah Rock.” And our singers brought them all to vibrant life — with commendable precision, accurate intonation, lush tone and deep sacred sincerity. I marveled at how Nelson — a charismatic conductor — drew Hogan’s hallmark sounds and effects from his committed singers.

Guest soloist Laquavia Alston melted our hearts and made the rafters ring with her magnificent mezzo voice. We also got spirited and sonorous solo work from soprano Theodosia Boston, tenor Lee Pringle (also ensemble founder-president), and baritone Vanceto Blyden. The only minor flaws I noted were a couple of slightly ragged choral entrances. And, as good as their male singers are, the group could still use a few more of them — especially deep basses — to further enrich their already impressive sound.

At last, Charleston can claim a first-rate choir that does full justice to a vital part of our region’s cultural heritage. As with any fairly new performing ensemble, I expect them to keep improving as over time — but, as they are, you can count on them to touch your heart, while making your listening experience a toe-tappin’, head-bobbin’ good time. So be sure to watch for their future concerts (via the above link): these terrific artists certainly deserve your attention and support.

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