Featured Stories, Lutherans in the Twin Cities

The faithful story of American spirituals

Spirituals arose from a very specific cultural context in America. An enslaved African population created a complex musical expression that could both respond to the struggles of immediate conditions, while at the same time provide a coded language of expression for freedom.

In many ways spirituals are the truest American music form. And they are integrally related to other forms of expression — gospel, jazz, blues. Spirituals have provided the expressive foundation for the Black Church experience.

Today, many and diverse faith communities draw sustenance from these musical gems.

André Thomas, WITNESS guest conductor

“André Thomas’ book Way Over in Beulah Lan’ is the classic work on spirituals.”

Aware of this history, Twin Cities choral group VocalEssence has invited composer André Thomas, a foremost expert on American spirituals, to be guest director of the annual WITNESS concert. In addition to VocalEssence, The St. Olaf Choir and three local high school choirs will participate in the March 4th concert.

A witness to the truth

A couple decades ago, VocalEssence founder and director Philip Brunelle was listening to the radio. “I was driving while a Duke Ellington tune was played,” Brunelle recalled. As the music ended, “the announcer said, ‘That’s our nod to Black History Month.’ I thought, ‘Really? That’s it?’”

Brunelle then asked himself what classical choral pieces by African-American composers he knew. He called David Baker, a friend working with Indiana University’s jazz program, to discuss his idea. “You know what you’re going to call it?,” asked Baker. Answering himself, he said, “You’re going to call it ‘witness,’ because that is what you are doing.” With that was born the WITNESS program.

“The WITNESS program is a fantastic outreach program of music in the schools,” explained Kimberly Meisten, director of community engagement for VocalEssence. “It gives a few local schools access to performing at Orchestra Hall, and puts 12 teaching artists in schools … to deepen the understanding of the arts.”

“It isn’t often that my students of color have the opportunity to see and learn from a brilliant African-American composer, musician, and conductor,” said Nancy Lee, choir director at Minneapolis’ Washburn High School, one of the participating schools. “Washburn is a very diverse school, and it is important that all my students have role models associated with their own culture.”

Spirituals and the community sing

Brunelle is excited to share Thomas with the Twin Cities community. “I have known André for many years. He is one of the leading figures who knows the history of spirituals and how to interpret them,” he said. “His book Way Over in Beulah Lan’ is the classic work, especially in college courses, on spirituals.

“Most high school and college choirs, and even many church choirs, have André Thomas arrangements in their libraries,” Brunelle said. “He has a great deal of influence.”

In previous years, the WITNESS concert has included musicians like Sweet Honey in the Rock or themes like “Rosa Parks.” The WITNESS program local artists, people like T. Mychael Rambo and storyteller Rose McGee, then use the theme with their work in local schools.

Another component of the WITNESS program is a community sing. “We started that a few years ago,” Brunelle explained. “Last year we had a conductor from Mexico, so we did a community sing at Incarnation Church and drew in the Mexican community.”

Thomas leads a similar event February 27 at Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church in Minneapolis. This free community sing offers participants an afternoon (3 to 5 p.m.) of African-American spirituals, including “Keep Your Lamps,” “Walk in the Light,” and “If You’re Happy, Amen.”

The VocalEssence concert will be March 4 at 8 p.m. at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis. Tickets range from $14.50 to $43.50. (Participate in the community sing and save $5 on ticket price.) For more information or to purchase tickets, call 612/371-5656 or visit www.vocalessence.org.

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