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  • Writer's pictureJim Bessman

American Spiritual Ensemble inspires at APAP

American Spiritual Ensemble

Dr. Everett McCorvey and the American Spiritual Ensemble (Photo: Jonathan Palmer)

As with most showcases at the Association of Performing Arts Professionals (APAP) conference staged at the New York Hilton Hotel Midtown, the American Spiritual Ensemble: Premier Classical Ambassadors of the American Negro Spirituals showcase for talent buyers and presenters (the Lexington, Kentucky-based group did two on Sunday) was limited to 15 minutes.

But Dr. Everett McCorvey, American Spiritual Ensemble (ASE) founder/music director, made the most of it. Eschewing any spoken background on the selections in favor of focusing on the songs and singing, McCorvey led his 25-piece ensemble (23 vocalists and a pianist and djembe percussionist) in five spirituals before a filled room of awestruck auditors.

It was the songs, of course--“Walk Together Children,” “Steal Away,” “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho,” “Great God Almighty” and “Old Time Religion/When the Saints.” But their power was magnified by the vocalists: The ASE roster is made up of classically trained singers including New York Metropolitan Opera soloists, Broadway veterans, and leading university professors of voice.

McCorvey himself is on the staff of the University of Kentucky opera program, though he grew up in the church.

“I grew up in Montgomery, Alabama, in the late 1950s and ‘60s,” McCorvey relates. “My parents were very involved in the civil rights movement. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. lived two blocks from our house, and my father was a deacon at the church where Ralph David Abernathy Sr. was minister. He made my father deacon at First Baptist Church, and he still is at 95!”

First Baptist, notes McCorvey, was one of the largest churches, and a historic site during the civil rights era.

“The great choirs—The Fisk Jubilee Singers, The Tuskegee Choir, The Hampton University Choir—came through in support of the civil rights movement, so as a child I heard great choirs singing this music, and it touched me deeply. I grew up on spirituals, anthems and hymns, and as an adult started seeing the gospel music industry growing and taking over--and the great spirituals in their simple a cappella form, or accompanied by just a djembe, were being lost and replaced by a style of music using guitars and bass and drum sets and amplification.”

McCorvey felt a need to preserve the great spiritual tradition.

“I call spirituals ‘the mother music,’” he says. “It’s the music that got it all started, and I wanted to make sure that this music had its own place in our American musical heritage.”

McCorvey has a Doctorate of Musical Arts degree from the University of Alabama, and as a tenor soloist, has himself performed in such venues as the Kennedy Center, the Metropolitan Opera and Radio City Music Hall.

“I’ve freelanced in and out of New York since the early ‘80s, starting as a singer. Then I went back to college, and have been teaching at the University of Kentucky for 27 years,” says McCorvey, who is professor of voice and director of opera there. He also serves on the artist faculty of the American Institute of Musical Study in Graz, Austria, during the summers.

He founded American Spiritual Ensemble in 1995, first using University of Kentucky students.

“Little did I know that it would become so popular so quickly that I would have to hire professional musicians, since we were getting a lot of requests to perform and I couldn’t pull students out of class. I chose opera singers because the sound that operatic voices could create would be powerful, plus the blend of operatic voices with this music is amazing! Most of the singers are classically trained and have masters and doctorates—great musicians with their own individual operatic careers from the Met to the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the San Francisco Opera.”

The Ensemble generally tours with the 25 artists, though McCorvey can go smaller according to presenters’ budgets.

“I can put a concert together in three or four days because I have a roster of about 125 singers,” he says. “We hold auditions every year in New York, and if a regular isn’t available I can go to the roster and choose a like singer in that particular vocal range.”

He employs a djembe percussionist, he says, because “it’s an African instrument that I have found in some of the pieces adds a little rhythm and establishes a heartbeat, almost, adding to the power of the particular spiritual—though it’s not used on all of them.”

McCorvey had brought ASE to APAP twice before, the first time busing attendees to the Riverside Church for a full concert, the second at the French Institute Alliance Francaise in Midtown Manhattan nearer the Hilton.

“But this was the best of the three in terms of meeting people,” he said of Sunday’s Hilton showcases. “It’s ground zero--where the [arts] people are.”

This year’s APAP showcases also heralded next year’s 25th anniversary of ASE, and McCorvey chose songs that were representative of the Ensemble’s repertoire.

“We start every concert with ‘Walk Together Children’ because it was one of Martin Luther King’s favorite lines in his sermons: ‘Walk together children. Don’t you get weary. There’s a great camp meeting in the Promised Land.’ The whole message is not getting weary but continuing on. ‘Steal Away’ was a signal song of the Underground Railroad and probably the best-known spiritual besides ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.’”

The Ensemble uses the Moses Hogan arrangement of “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho”--“the popular slave story”--notes McCorvey. Author of The Oxford Book of Spirituals, Hogan “is credited with bringing the spiritual back to the forefront in the 1990s and 2000s. He died very young but left a wealth of choral music and spirituals, and sparked a whole new movement.”

“Great God Almighty,” which uses Stacey V. Gibbs’ arrangement, “is like a whole opera to me,” says McCorvey. “It’s the slaves breaking away for freedom and singing it while running, and you hear it in the music--the horses running, and ‘Captain, don’t kill me!’ It’s a powerful story.”

“Old Time Religion/When the Saints,” says McCorvey, “is one of the most popular pieces in our concerts and shows our diversity: We start with a cappella pieces and then show some of the ways that the spiritual form and melody has evolved--from spirituals to blues, gospel, jazz, and even pop in the call-and-response of Ray Charles and Motown. We even do Broadway selections that represent the black experience, like Porgy and Bess and The Lion King, because our singers are also on or from Broadway.”

Many of the singers, McCorvey notes, have been in the Ensemble 15 years and counting.

“It amazes me and humbles me that they continue coming back,” he says, “but I think they all join in the mission to keep this music alive. That’s why I talk about the music during the concerts and provide background information so people learn the history of it, and why it’s so important to our American musical heritage.”

“Think about the stories that the spirituals tell,” explains McCorvey. “They were borne out of slavery: When enslaved people were brought to this country, they could not bring their instruments or speak their languages, and were separated from their families. But they were allowed to attend church, where they heard Bible stories and realized that God took care of the least people in the culture. They felt if God took care of the least people in the Bible, then surely he would take care of the least of those in this country—which were themselves--the slaves.”

So the slaves “created these melodies—over 6,000 spiritual melodies,” continues McCorvey. “Only 3,000 were written down and cataloged, and many are in the Library of Congress—which I researched.”

He characterizes spirituals as “haunting pieces of music that touch and disarm people because of their sheer beauty—and the stories and the history that helps people understand our country and our fellow man. One of the things I say to people when I do master classes is that while spirituals were originally linked to slavery, we are still enslaved in really different ways: alcohol, drugs, physical abuse. But these songs have a message of freedom from whatever that slavery happens to be in a person’s life, and I think that’s why they continue to touch people. You listen to the lyrics and they mean something to you in your particular environment and situation, and it’s an empowering way to free you from your own slavery.”

And McCorvey has no problem in retaining the original “Negro Spirituals” terminology.

“That’s what they were called at the time—not African-American spirituals,” he says. “I want to celebrate that name because that’s what they are. I tell choral directors and singers—whenever they ask—‘I encourage you to call them that, so people know the difference between gospel and spirituals.’”

“Spirituals are not gospel,” McCorvey concludes. “They are the folks songs of the American Negro slaves.”

The American Spiritual Ensemble



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