On Jan. 15, Blair School of Music's new Martha Rivers Ingram Center for the Performing Arts held its debut concert. Offered as part of Vanderbilt University's annual series of special events commemorating Martin Luther King Jr., the concert was given by the Fisk Jubilee Singers in their first-ever performance on the Vanderbilt campus. In some ways, the evening was resonant with irony. It celebrated the fiscal health of one of the nation's most prestigious universities. But the concert's performers belong to an ensemble that was founded in 1871 to rescue Fisk University, then only 5 years old, from the brink of financial disaster. Today, this historic African American institution is teetering again on that same brink.
Vanderbilt University's endowment fund is less than half of Princeton's $8 billion, but it is muscular nevertheless. The same is not true of Fisk's. During the 1960s, its endowment was only $15 million, and that amount dwindled in the 1980s, as the school became saddled with troubling debts. Fisk still faces the same challenges today, but it perseveres. In some ways paying tribute to that spirit of survival, the 131-year-old Fisk Jubilee Singers sang last week, and what they sang embodied the themes of deliverance and transcendence that have always been at the core of African American music and culture.
On this Tuesday evening the Jubilee Singers showcased what now is most likely the finest acoustic venue in our city. Blair's new hall contains some 600 roomy and comfortable seats; there is no bad seat in this house. The venue is equipped to enable full-scale operatic and theatrical productions employing a full orchestra in an ample pit, with capacious fly space for large and complex scenery, a fully equipped scene shop and a suite of dressing rooms. It is also outfitted to enable state-of-the-art recordings.
Ingram Center, which seems more intimate than it actually is, was splendidly served by the Fisk Jubilee Singers. Their program consisted of two dozen songs, including one insistently besought encore. The entire program was sung from memory, without accompaniment, the opening pitches given with a pitch pipe by one of the singers onstage. All the selections were African American traditional songs, nearly all of them very well knownbut all in fresh and sophisticated forms.
Most of the selections were delivered very quietly at a moderate or slow tempoan audacious strategy. As every chorister knows, singing unaccompanied is risky enough: Without an instrumental anchor, pitches tend to melt into a blurred tone soup. Singing quietly and slowly aggravates the tendency. That's why groups like the King's Singers and the Anonymous Four are so rare and precious. The Fisk Jubilee Singers do not reach that standard of professional excellence, but their pitches did not melt, and their disciplined consistency kept the full house in rapt attention for two-and-a-half hours.
What's more, these were very young singers, ranging in ages from about 18 to 22, with still maturing voices. Their sound had more in common with Charlotte Church than with Kathleen Battle, and yet they sang with almost hypnotic power.
The program might be viewed as a three-act drama. In the first act, the players gathered onstage in darkness. The lights came up to reveal young people in mid-19th-century costume, positioned to replicate an oil painting commissioned by Queen Victoria to commemorate the original ensemble's first visit to England. (That painting hangs now in Fisk's Jubilee Hall.) The singers held their poses at first, motionless, like iconic images. Then they came to life and sang. Between songs they briefly reassumed their painted postures. Their performance, as singers and as actors, had a compelling dramatic intensity.
After this first segment, the singers returned in other costumes, the women in long gowns and the men in vintage formal suits. They looked and behaved like a well-prepared choir on tour as they sang the second act of their drama. And then, during another brief interval, they changed costumes again. This time both men and women returned in conservative business suits, appearing as a handsome, focused, confident group of young 21st-century professional men and women. In each of these personae, the singers remained always perfectly in character.
Perhaps the performance's most impressive feature was the stunning arrangements they sang. These were done by more than half a dozen different arrangers, including one by the celebrated William Dawson, and three by Paul Kwami, the ensemble's present director. These arrangements of traditional songs embodied distinctive traits of the African American musical heritagefor example, subtle and intricate syncopations and elaborate microtonal melismata. But these elements were arranged into patterns of complex, imitative counterpoint and subtly managed dissonances that transfigured folk matter into high art.
Most of the evening's music was somber, and some of it was painfully so. But some of it was laced with sardonic wit and with moments of understated comic choreography, and all of it was delivered with disciplined mastery. The evening as a whole was a sustained and delightful tour de force.
During the second intermission, Prof. Lucius Outlaw Jr., director of Vanderbilt's African American Studies program and a Fisk alumnus, observed wryly that he went to Fisk pretty much because he had to. But these young people had options not open to him: They might have gone to Harvard, or Princeton, or Williams, or Haverforduniversities now actively recruiting gifted African Americans. These young people, he said, chose to come to Fisk because of its tradition and what it represents.
Outlaw's remarks reaffirmed that the Fisk tradition may speak powerfully to white Americans as well as to black onesthat African American history is, indeed, American history. Bringing together these singers in this hall was an occasion for rejoicingand for soul searching. Ingram Center is a splendid addition to our city; these young voices in that hall showed how splendid it is.
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