Noontime Concerts will hold a performance celebrating spirituals arranged by three living African American composers on Aug. 28 at the Herbst Theatre in San Francisco.
The concert, “Majesty of the Spiritual,” features music by composers Lena McLin, Roland Carter, and Jacqueline Hairston and aims to highlight the art form’s evolution and thematic range — from hope to humor and beyond.
As McLin, 93, is not able to travel to San Francisco due to the pandemic, the program pairs song and film to give audience members a glimpse into the three composers’ lives, stories, and creative processes.
Curated by baritone Robert Sims, the concert brings together 15 artists, including Sims himself, Donnie Ray Albert, Limmie Pulliam, Raehann Bryce-Davis, Hope Briggs, Marquita Lister, Cynthia Clarey, Shawnette Sulker, Louise Toppin, Edwin Jhamaal Davis, Carl Blake, Daniel Lockert, Byron Burford-Phearse, James Meredith, and Susheel Bibbs.
Spirituals, or religious folk songs created by enslaved African Americans, were used to plan actions, share information, comfort the community, and spread spirituality as a method of foretelling a better future, Sims said. He was introduced to the tradition by McLin, who happened to be his high school music teacher.
“I learned many spirituals sitting next to her as she composed and arranged at the piano,” Sims said. “It is my hope that young musicians will explore this vast repertoire and not just sing the most popular 25 spirituals known by many.”
Blues, jazz, gospel, and R&B all forked out from this genre, yet it seldom gets its due recognition.
“If you tell somebody, ‘I’m doing a full lieder recital,’ they know what that is. They know it’s going to be Strauss, Schubert, Brahms … the great lieder composers,” Sims said. With spirituals, however, concertgoers often expect “hand-clapping, foot-stomping music,” he explained. They expect well-known songs like “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” (which, for the record, is gospel, not a spiritual).
“I just want people to recognize the genius of [the spiritual] and give this music the respect that it deserves,” Sims said. He hopes this concert can overcome those misconceptions and highlight the fact that the modern spiritual is “as deeply rooted in the present as it is in the past.”
Susheel Bibbs, both a soprano and filmmaker, will open the concert with a solo rendition of “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.”
On this program, “there are songs of sorrow, but there are also songs of gladness and joy and uplift, and they form a bond with the audience,” Bibbs said. “As a singer sings, the audience brings back love.”
Bibbs is the founder of the Living Heritage Foundation, a nonprofit that aims to amplify the work of African American artists through grants and sponsorships; the foundation is co-producing this performance. Excerpts of a documentary Bibbs made about composer Hairston will be shown during the concert.
She noted that “there’s nothing wrong with someone who’s not African American singing them [spirituals],” as long as they understand the harmonic structure and feel the spirit — the human emotions behind each song.
“Once they understand that, they can sing the music,” Bibbs said, “because it’s music of the heart.”
Correction: The article, as originally published, stated Roland Carter would not be in attendance for the performance. In fact, he will be there.