‘It’s Kind of Rooted in Race’ — Concerts Tell Story of America Using Spirituals

May 19, 2017

The spiritual, as a musical form, was born in America. It emerged from pain and despair, but over time would become a gift to the nation. This weekend in Falmouth and Brunswick, a Maine-based chorale will accompany a world-renowned countertenor in a concert production called “Amazing Grace: The American Spiritual.” The multimedia performances are designed to convey how the music helps to tell the story of the nation itself.

If you listen carefully to a recorded performance of the spiritual “Precious Lord,” it might surprise you that the singer would be a guy like Reginald Mobley.

“So for the folks at home who are in their cars listening to the radio, Reggie looks like a linebacker. He is a big, strong black man, so you expect to hear this deep voice to come out. It is in really the same vocal range as an alto or a mezzo,” says artistic director Emily Isaacson.

Isaacson says she didn’t specifically seek out a countertenor for the show.

“Why Reggie? Why a countertenor for this concert? It’s about Reggie, it’s not about the countertenor voice. It’s about this amazing artist,” she says.

Mobley says some audiences are surprised when they first hear his voice, which may have to do with preconceptions of what he should sound like.

“It’s kind of rooted in race. It’s kind of a constant microaggression that most of us have learned to live with, that big black men are basses, and it always leads most people to expect something aside from what they actually hear. So I do take advantage of the fact that I do have the ‘shock and awe’ tactic in my belt — it’s a pretty good weapon, because I will always get attention, and the job is easy from that point because all I have to do is keep your attention,” he says.

And through that attention, Isaacson says she wants audiences to experience the connection between the music and how it has been shaped by changes in American society and religion.

“And I also felt like this music specifically, a lot of people perform without any of its context. It will be the cherry on top at the end of an exciting program. And it’s great music, but I wanted to give it the same attention and honesty that I give my baroque music,” she says. “So the idea of this concert is that we are informing your understanding of these incredibly inspiring, moving, energizing pieces by understanding not just where they came from but what was going on around them and how people have responded to them since.”

Mobley, who has come to Maine directly from a private concert at Buckingham Palace, says the spiritual is inherently American, and while it was born from the pain and ugliness of slavery, it became something else.

“It transformed into something beautiful. It was shared with all Americans post-slavery. It became this ambassador to the souls of all Americans to unite and become something better than we were,” he says. “That hasn’t necessarily happened yet, but as long as we continue to appreciate music in America, spirituals will always exist as the kind of healing branch of the arts — the American arts.”

The Oratorio Chorale, in collaboration with the Portland Abyssinian Meeting House, present “Amazing Grace: The American Spiritual,” at 7:30 p.m. Friday at St Mary’s Episcopal Church in Falmouth, and at 2 p.m. and 4 p.m Saturday at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Brunswick.