BWW Reviews: Langston Hughes' BLACK NATIVITY Lights Up Brunswick Christmas
December 8, 2013
In 1961 at the 41st Street Theatre in New York City, African-American poet-playwright Langston Hughes premiered a work called Black Nativity, a collection of gospel songs punctuated by Hughes's own verse narrating the birth of Jesus. After a very short run, the only souvenir of that historic event was a rare LP recording. More than a half century later, Maine musicologist Aaron Robinson has collaborated with Bowdoin College conductor and choral director Anthony Antolini to mount a revised version of Hughes' original work.
Entitled Black Nativity In Concert - A Gospel Celebration, Robinson has utilizEd Hughes' original texts, adding a few plus some Biblical verse, as well. For the musical settings he relied on transcribing the recording and arranging several songs himself. Performed yesterday by the seventy-five person Bowdoin Chorus, conducted by Antolini, with Roy Partridge as narrator, Jennifer McIvor on piano, and Sean Fleming on the Hammond organ, the concert in Studzkinski Recital Hall drew an overflowing crowd, many of whom were relegated to watching on lobby monitors.
Their enthusiasm was rewarded by a passionate and polished performance. The chorus, itself, which is comprised largely of undergraduates, but also includes college and community members, sang with well-disciplined musicality and a strong sense of text. If one might occasionally have wished for a more robust sound, one could, nonetheless, be grateful for their finesse of phrasing and beauty of tone. Antolini's preparation was evident and his conducting was unobtrusive and restrained. The two musical accompanists played with both deference and flair, allowing the soloists to shine.
Of these soprano Kelsey Berger (class of 2015) enjoyed the lion's share. She used her burnished voice to exciting effect in Poor Little Jesus, Joy to the World, and O Happy Day. Berger has a true command of the gospel idiom and embellished her solos with delightful riffs. Danielle Vayenas, who sang How Blest We Are and closed the program with a rousing Go Tell It on the Mountain, brought down the house with her vibrato rich, well-modulated soprano of considerable size and dizzying ease in the upper register. Other noteworthy contributions came from sopranos Jennifer Felkay and freshman Grace McKenzie-Smith and alto Virginia Purcell.
In the male contingent Tim Bate displayed a well schooled, secure tenor with an intelligent sense of style; tenor Tómas Donatelli-Pitfield (class of 2016) sang Glory to the Newborn King with an infectious beat, if a little pressed in the lower notes, while baritone Lucas Shaw and bass David Vargas (both class of 2016) revealed attractive, if unfinished vocal instruments.
But for this critic the most thrilling moment of all came with senior Viet Nguyen's baritone rendition of Wasn't That a Mighty Day? The timbre is velvety warm, the tone firm and substantial, the phrasing elegant, and his sense of style pitch-perfect. After the first few bars, a frisson went through the crowd at the sheer delight in hearing a young artist command the concert platform with such poise and charisma.
The audience, who was invited to join the final chorus of Go Tell It on the Mountain, found themselves clapping and singing with gusto, warmly feting the ensemble with an encore. It seemed a very rare Christmas gift, indeed, in this little town of Brunswick, Maine, to have had the pleasure of reviving Langston Hughes' inspiring and all-embracing work.
Photo Courtesy of Bowdoin College Chorus