By Paul Horsley
In 2008 the world-renowned trumpeter and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Wynton Marsalis determined to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church with an ambitious mass for choir, soloists and jazz orchestra. Abyssinian 200: a Celebration was a hit, and on October 19th the Grammy-winning performer, author, classical celebrity, ambassador of peace and Jazz from Lincoln Center artistic director brought the piece to the Harriman-Jewell Series. With a capital gospel choir of some 70 voices and a 20-member jazz ensemble, which included Wynton hiding right there on the back row, this piece lifts the spirit with a warm, savvy, at times witty fusion of gospel, jazz, folk and even more complex contrapuntal styles. It is like a gospel Mass (and has been called as such), a two-and-a-half-hour celebration of vocal and instrumental art – some improvisational, some predetermined – that charmed the heck out of a sold-out audience at the Kauffman Center’s 1,600-seat Helzberg Hall.
The red-robed Chorale Le Chateau was led masterfully by its founding director, Damien Sneed, in a variety of hymns, spirituals and jubilant shouts that featured interjections from a wide range of largely excellent vocal soloists. The 19-movement work featured instrumental interludes that were at times invigorating, at times like smoky rooms (“The Father” portion of the Offertory). Wynton shared a few solos, imbuing “The Son” with golden suavity, but all around him were excellent soloists on trumpet, saxophone, clarinet, piano, bass and drums. Each had his moment, and the trumpet and sax soloists stood out. If some of the ensemble-work was not as tight as expected, the sheer command of the style was continually impressive.
The musicians were not beyond a bit of humor (as in the trumpet-slides in the opening “Devotional” and “Call to Worship”), but mostly this was a piece about supplication (“Give us this day!” the choir fairly cries out in “The Lord’s Prayer”), about preaching (“The Beatitudes” featured a wistful soprano who reminded me of Billie Holiday), and about praise (“Glory to God in the Highest,” set in a vigorous 6/8 meter that runs like a stream against forceful interjections of the horns). The choir cajoled, pleaded, demanded: At times they sang a cappella, at times at a hushed but full-bodied pianissimo, at times with incredible power.
In the “Meditation” they “tossed” words at us, food for thought as it were; at other times they followed Damien’s whimsically choreographed arm-gestures like an aerobics class (Sermon: “The Unifying Power of Prayer”). The Recessional (“The Glory Train”) began like a locomotive, with train-whistle sonorities that accelerated, then slowed to a halt. The “Amen” brought the piece to a stealthy, strongly rhythmic conclusion. It served as a sort of summation of the whole mood of the piece: “Oh Father we go forth,” “Blessed our sisters … mothers … etc.,” “Go in peace, love and serve the Lord,” “Forever Be.”
If Wynton’s longish Mass seems to take a while to “get going” (it’s not until the fourth movement, “We Are On Our Way,” that we feel like we are cooking with gas) and if the over-repetition of phrases (especially in the second half) created longueurs that challenged a sense of over-arching wholeness, Wynton’s piece possesses a strong authenticity and an enormous sense of integrity – one that is bolstered by the manner in which, instead of grabbing the spotlight himself, he gave it to the other players, to the choir, to the vocal soloists and especially to Damien Sneed, whose direction was inspired and well-grounded throughout.
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For information about upcoming Harriman-Jewell Series concerts call 816-415-5025 or go to hjseries.org.