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Let My People Go

12 Mar 2007

I had the opportunity to attend Nathaniel Dett Chorale’s latest offering, Voices of the Diaspora: Let My People Go at the Toronto Centre for the Arts, George Weston Hall.  The evening commemorated the 200 th anniversary of the abolition of the Slave Trade in the British Empire (March 25, 1807).

First allow me to confess, I still believe in magic.  You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.  Founder and Artistic Director Brainerd Blyden-Taylor welcomed us to the evening with the news that we were celebrating the Chorale’s 9 th birthday, calling it “a little dream that grew,” causing me to reflect on the niche this organization has carved out.

They’re atypical to say the least.  The Nathaniel Dett Chorale are Canada’s first professional choral group dedicated to Afrocentric music, performing classical, spiritual, gospel, jazz folk and blues. The group of 21 world class vocalists have performed at events honouring Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu and Muhammad Ali, and is about empowering, building bridges and dissolving barriers.  I count five people I know in the lobby, four of whom I’m surprised to see here.  Then again, who exactly do you expect to see at a performance of African American music rendered in a classical form?  A survey of the audience spoke to the form’s broad appeal, bringing people of all ages and ethnicities out on this bitter cold night for the NDC experience, including a group of youth who met with the artists prior to the show.

If you have ever been to a performance by this accomplished ensemble, I need not describe the little swell in my chest when we were asked to stand for the Black National Anthem.  The uncommon arrangement of Lift Every Voice and Sing that followed introduced us to the wide range and unconventional turns we could expect throughout the evening, as familiar words and melodies from the African American canon were expanded, exalted and elevated through the choir’s distinct collective voice.

Equally unique treatments give Wade in the Water and Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel a feeling of familiarity and discovery at the same time; so much is happening within the technically complex framework that is also compelling on a purely emotional level. With their singular style and mandate, I sense that this balance has been key to the chorale’s longevity.

Blyden-Taylor’s mark is indelibly written on the performances, which are as a whole both passionate and elegant. He speaks and conducts with a dignified, suppressed energy and supplies just enough contextual preamble to let us all in on the concept behind an oratorio without giving a lecture – a neat trick.  (It’s a musical composition for orchestra , vocal soloists and chorus , different from opera in that it does not have scenery, costumes, or acting and tends to have religious subject matter). The oratorio The Ordering of Moses, composed by R Nathaniel Dett, comprised the second half of the program.

Choral pieces March of the Israelites and Go Down Moses raised me out of my seat like a plant bending towards the light of the sun, and while the chorus’s unified voice is a moving signature, there are some beautiful surprises that unfold dramatically.

Melissa Davis is flawless in Listen to the Lambs, both a powerful voice and a commanding presence at centre stage. Alto Ali Garrison stands out all the way through the evening, embodying the soul projected through her voice, palpably living the sound.  In the oratorio, soprano Neema Bickersteth’s lead on Come let us praise Jehovah and tenor Larry Sowell’s heart rending Lord!  Who am I? absolutely shine at a point in the program when you think you’ve seen what everyone can do.

The Nathaniel Dett Chorale’s success is clearly no fluke.  Its members, some of whom do not share the African heritage that informs the repertoire, share among them an impressive array of academic credentials and prestigious awards.  Their namesake, Nathaniel Dett, had a calling to preserve and disseminate music that carries a vital aspect of our culture, to allow these pieces to evolve and persevere.  For some audience members the evening recalled an aesthetic consistent with their Caribbean upbringing, infusing a colonial model with African diasporic salve.  For all present, Lift Every Voice and Sing was an uplifting and unifying event, bringing us down into the valley and back out again together. The dream is alive.

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