Harlem Chamber Players invite stellar vocal artists for diverse Harlem Songfest II

United StatesUnited States Various, Harlem Songfest II: Terrance McKnight (host), Janinah Burnett (soprano), Jasmine Muhammad (soprano), Lucia Bradford (mezzo-soprano), Martin Bakari (tenor), Kenneth Overtone (baritone), Harlem Chamber Players / Damien Sneed (music director). Miller Theater at Columbia University, New York, 9.6.2023. (DS)

Curtain Call for Harlem Songfest II © Bob Curtis

Damien Sneed / Scott Joplin – ‘Overture’ (Treemonisha)
Handel – ‘Hence, Iris, Hence Away’ (Semele)
Verdi – ‘Pace, pace, mio Dio’ (La forza del destino)
Bizet – from Carmen:Je dis que rien ne m’ épouvante’, ‘Habanera’, ‘Votre Toast/Toreador Song’
R. Strauss – ‘Hab mir’s gelobt’ (Der Rosenkavalier)
George Gershwin – ‘My Man’s Gone Now’ (Porgy and Bess)
Mary Watkins – ‘My Son, My Child’ (Emmett Till)
Damien Sneed – ‘There is a Balm in Gilead’ (Spiritual Sketches)
Dorothy Rudd Moore – ‘Fourth of July Speech’ (Frederick Douglass, arr. Damien Sneed)
Harry Lawrence Freeman – ‘Voodoo Queen Aria’ (Voodoo)
Margaret Bonds – ‘He’s got the whole world in his hands’ (arr. Damien Sneed)

Summer is here, and a songfest concert is a perfect match to the season of taking it easy. With a mixture of beloved European nineteenth-century arias and twentieth-century works from Black and women composers, the Harlem Chamber Players under the direction of Damien Steed succeeded at what they set forth to do: bring great music to the Harlem neighborhood and make it clear that, yes, a classical orchestra can be genuinely diverse. Players harked from many backgrounds and creeds, and it was refreshing to look on stage and see the pastiche of New York City folk sitting before the audience, playing enrapturing music.

Harlem Chamber Players maintain a long-time, tight relationship with the classical radio host Terrance McKnight, who introduced the evening’s works through the lens of historical changes. His virtuosic speaking style pumps up an audience even in the typically reticent classical halls, and he minced no words on the importance of strengthening diversity in the arts. Why? Well, the programming answered it – different, valuable stories will be told when you have a broader bench of musical directors and musicians. The crowning song of the evening, ‘My Son, My Child’, was from Mary Watkin’s new opera, Emmett Till. Till was lynched in Mississippi at the age of fourteen. Mezzo-soprano Lucia Bradford as the mother applied her stunning, character-driven style of interpretation to chant, sing, speak and nearly cry out this heart-jolting, unjust story in a powerfully dense lyrical aria.

New works on burning topics were performed next to hallowed standards like Richard Strauss’s ‘Hab mir’s gelobt’ trio from Der Rosenkavalier – strengthening the far-reaching network of the emotions and experiences that only music can capture for generations to come. Soprano Jasmine Muhammad elevated this already sublime trio performance with a remarkable, buttery-like shaping of her voice that transcended any earthly rendition of beauty one might imagine.

The evening also harked back to early-twentieth-century Black composition in opera. Composer Harry Lawrence Freeman, as McKnight explained, changed the role of the Black character in opera from a figure perpetually marginalized and vilified to a person who offers a vastly rich tapestry of experience to wonder at and celebrate. Soprano Janinah Burnett blew the roof off the ‘cardboard-box’ that is the uptown Miller Theater with her phenomenal performance of the ‘Voodoo Queen Aria’ from Voodoo. The audience roared in delight.

The magic of this summer concert, complete with mosquitoes who infiltrated the front doors and even a few people gently scolded for carelessly leaving on cell phones, was that it made abundantly clear how the old, the new, the revered and the traditionally silenced really can all embrace a stage together. There is room, and plenty of it: this is the only way to rejoice in the vast experience of humankind.

And favorites will still be favorites for people from all walks of life gathered together. Bizet’s ‘Toreador Song’ was performed to the audience’s glee by all three female vocalists along with the splendid tenor Martin Bakari and powerful baritone Kenneth Overton – whose triumphantly soulful sound made for a toreador rendition that would easily capture the hearts of audience members as much as the costumed female suitors on stage!

The Harlem Chamber Players Curtain call © Bob Curtis

The Harlem Chamber Players have been hitting the stage strongly for the past two seasons after the easing of the city’s pandemic, and their firm hold on bringing the beauty of art closer to uptown community audiences is one to watch closely in coming seasons. It is well worth the trip, wherever you live.

Daniele Sahr

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