The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra's "Classical Roots: the Power of Song" – a sellout on Friday night, March 7, 2014 at Cincinnati, Ohio's famed Music Hall Theatre. , With even limited view seats filled., this historic concert was devoted to the variety of music representative of the African-American tradition.
There were spirituals, gospel, rhythm and blues, soul and the civil rights anthem "We Shall Overcome," which recent research has traced to Cincinnati composer Louise Shropshire's hymn "If My Jesus Wills." There was even a world premiere, the Rev. Marvin Winans' "Even Me."
With the centerpiece 150-voice Classical Roots Community Mass Choir, drawn from 42 local churches and prepared by seven choral directors, the evening was filled with Cincinnati resonance. Cincinnati Pops conductor John Morris Russell was on the podium. Guest artist soprano Adrienne Danrich lent her velvety operatic voice to an aria from Verdi's "Un Ballo in Maschera" ("A Masked Ball"), "Morrò, ma prima in grazia" ("I shall die, but one last wish").
There was a reference to the CSO's World War II fanfare project, with William Grant Still's "Fanfare for American Heroes" (1942), a brief but upbeat opener to the concert. This was followed by Winans, the chorus and alto Carolyn O'Bryant in "Oh Lord, I Want You to Help Me," drawn from the call and response tradition.
The spiritual was represented by "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," given an exquisite rendition by Danrich, and by "Ain'a That Good News," a jubilee song led by retired Central State University chorus director William Henry Caldwell. JMR returned to the podium for Moses Hogan's stirring arrangement of "Didn't My Lord Deliver Daniel" with the CSO and chorus.
The first standing ovation of the evening followed the Gullah song "Kumbaya," beautifully performed with 13 members of the CSO Youth Orchestra's Nouveau Chamber Players, an education/outreach wing of the CSO comprising young African-American string players.
There was a tribute to Cincinnati's June Festival, a cognate of the May Festival, active from 1938 to 1956 when the May Festival Chorus was opened to African-American singers. Highlights of this portion included Florence Price's "My Soul is Anchored in the Lord," which Danrich sealed with soaring high notes, and the chorus' "Go Down Moses" from Nathaniel Dett's 1937 oratorio "The Ordering of Moses." (That also will be performed by the CSO and May Festival Chorus in New York's Carnegie Hall in May). JMR and the CSO performed the ragtime-flavored "Juba Dance" from Dett's "In the Bottoms" Suite to bring the first half to a rousing close.
JMR opened the second half with a shout as he launched into James Brown's "I Got You (I Feel Good)." Published by King Records, the song was a hand-clapper and a reminder, JMR said, that "the soul revolution began in Cincinnati." Another crowd favorite was Otis Redding's "Respect," a feminist anthem sung with zest by Danrich.
Winans returned to the gospel tradition with Dorothy Love Coates' "Holding on to My Faith," an ecstatic duo with Danrich, accompanied by a CSO "poptet." Winans' own "Awaken to a Place Where Dreams Come True" — sung at Whitney Houston's funeral in 2012 — hit inspirational heights, followed in the same vein by his "Even Me," a touching song about humility in the face of God's love, in which he was joined by Danrich and the chorus.
"If My Jesus Wills/We Shall Overcome" occupied a special place on the program. The arrangement, by Pops arranger Timothy Berens, alternated verses from Shropshire's hymn and the civil rights song. One of the verses was sung in Hindi by the Greater Cincinnati Indian Community Choir to underscore the universality of the work.
The concert concluded with James Weldon Johnson's anthem "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing." The audience stood here, sharing the moment with the Community Mass Choir, and underscoring in no uncertain terms the evening's message of faith, hope and courage.