WASHINGTON, DC - Soprano Kathleen Battle performed a program of traditional spirituals in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall on Sunday that left no doubt that she still is one of the most acclaimed singers of her day.
At 69, Battle, whose glimmering, lyrical voice is known worldwide by opera fans, captivated a nearly sold out house in a program performed in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday. Titled “Kathleen Battle’s ’Underground Railroad: A Spiritual Journey,” the program featured Battle, a 16-voice choir and narrations from works by Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Robert Hayden, and Dr. Charles Blockson.
If music has the power to heal and uplift, then, hopefully, in these days of racial turbulence and violence, there was healing going on in the nation’s capital.
Accompanied by pianist Joel A. Martin and special guest pianist Cyrus Chestnut, Battle was in top form as she took to the stage in a velvet, wine-colored gown with a floor-length gold wrap, performing 17 spirituals that have become classics in the black church.
Starting off with the poignant “Lord, How Come Me Here?,” Battle performed without musical accompaniment, with the choir performing in the background. The song, with its words, “They sold my chillen away,” set the tone for what would be numerous emotional and powerful moments.
Martin accompanied Battle on the stirring “Go Down Moses,” before moving into the jazzy and upbeat “Roll Jordan, Roll,” that allowed Martin to show off some dazzling piano skills.
Chestnut, professor of Jazz Piano and Improvisation at Howard University, accompanied Battle on “Hush,” “Give Me Jesus,” and Wade in the Water,” with the latter garnering a standing ovation from the audience. A sideman with many prominent jazz artists, Chestnut’s interplay with Battle was a joy to watch, as was his deft and talented artistry.
Interspersed with the songs were readings that included the words of Douglass, the great abolitionist, and Tubman, known as Moses, who both fought to help blacks gain their freedom. Narrated by Rev. Dr. James A. Forbes Jr., Warren Williams, and Dwandalyn Reece, the narrations were a perfect accompaniment to the music, educating the audience on the chilling and subhuman aspects of slavery. In one reading, Tubman said: “I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more, if only they knew they were slaves.” Douglass said: “I have sometimes thought that the mere hearing of those songs would do more to impress some minds with the horrible character of slavery than the reading of whole volumes of philosophy on this.”
Other readings gave details on why slaves sang so much. The reason: so that overseers could know their whereabouts in the fields. And still, others gave insight into the thinking of enslaved people regarding religious teachings. “God made white people be masters and mistresses and black people to be slaves. But I know of blacks who were not slaves and whites who were not slaveholders.” The author concludes that those were not God’s words, but man’s.
During the afternoon, the members of the 16 voice choir had ample opportunities to show off their talents and Battle graciously moved off stage several times to allow the members to display their abundant skills. Particularly compelling were their renderings of “In Bright Mansions Above,” “Glory, Glory Hallelujah,” and “How Did You Feel When You Come Out the Wilderness.”
Battle concluded the afternoon with the plaintive and soul-stirring “Fix Me Jesus”; the moving “Balm in Gilead”; and the inspirational “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Roun.’” A surprise, not on the program, was her powerful rendering of “Were You There,” sung so often in black churches during the Easter season. The audience showed its appreciation with another standing ovation befitting a seamless and stellar program.