January 22, 2013
Among all the pomp and circumstances yesterday at President Obama's second inauguration, one musical moment stood out for me: Carol Cymbala conducting the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir in a performance of the Battle Hymn of the Republic.
It was my first experience of this exceptional chorus, well-known on the other coast, singing about truth marching in, sounding different, taking liberties with key changes, at times almost going off key, and then hitting the spot with thrilling resolutions.
I wish I knew the amazing alto soloist's name, maybe a reader can help out. (Lisa Hirsch to the rescue, with the message: "Google is your friend. Her name is all over the place: Alicia Olatuja.)
As to what I at first thought to be new-ish harmonic treatment, San Francisco Symphony Chorus Director Ragnar Bohlin set me right:
"The chorus used mediants, the third note of a diatonic scale, midway between the tonic and the dominant, which can be used to go up or down a minor or major third from the key you're in, and thus create a sudden shift of tonal focus.
"Schubert and Schumann were the first to start using it seriously. I heard the Tabernacle performance just once, and spotted only one instance of what could also be described as a deceptive cadence. Call it what you will, there was a lot of interesting harmonization going on there, for sure."
The Tabernacle website speaks of "The novel rendition ... arranged by [chorus Founder and Conductor] Cymbala and Music Director Jason Michael Webb, with majestic orchestral accompaniment that's punctuated with innovative new harmonies while maintaining the classic feel of one of America's most beloved anthems."
Look up the chorus' website, and marvel at the great talent of "the 280-voice choir, whose members are mostly vocally untrained church members, [who have won] five Dove Awards and six Grammy Awards."