Until I attended Davóne Tines’s “Recital No. 1: Mass” at the First Congregational Church of Los Angeles on Wednesday night, it had been a while since I’d sat through a vocal recital or darkened the doors of a church, and not just because of the pandemic.
“It took me a long time to get to the point of wanting to give a traditional performance standing in the crook of a piano,” Tines said in a printed conversation with Fergus McIntosh that acted as program notes for the concert, which was presented by Monday Evening Concerts.
I can relate. Recitals and church services dominated the first half of my life. Growing up in rural Appalachia as the daughter of a Southern Baptist preacher, church was life and life was church.
In college and graduate school, I studied piano performance, which meant I gave recitals, prepared students for recitals, and accompanied singers and instrumentalists in their recitals.
Today, I’m not a Christian and I rarely practice piano. In order to survive and thrive as a person, I had to get away from church and religion and, to some extent, from the strict confines of classical music.
Walking into a church to hear a formal recital, I felt my skin crawl just a little bit.
Tines can relate. “I approached the recital situation with a sort of a phobia, or an allergic reaction to participating in a programming model in which I wasn’t fully engaged,” the bass-baritone continued in that printed conversation. He explained why he’d so long avoided the recital format, opting instead for more experimental performance settings in which he felt emotionally connected
“Recital No. 1: Mass” is the lucrative result of four years of intellectual and musical exploration. A bold personal artistic statement, it feels like Tines’s way of redefining the rules and rituals of classical music. It’s as if he is saying, “You want a recital? I’ll give you recital on my own terms, and it will be an unapologetically spiritual, Black, artistic experience.”
The sanctuary of the First Congregational Church of Los Angeles is cathedral-esque and features gothic-revival style architecture and an organ whose pipes scale the walls, reaching toward heaven. In other words, the perfect acoustic space in which to listen to one of the world’s most renowned bass-baritones unfurl his rich and artfully controlled voice.
As guests arrived Wednesday night, a soft organ drone accompanied them. Tines entered slowly from the back, moving down the central aisle as he sang a joyful and concise setting of the “Kyrie” text by Caroline Shaw. He wore a black shirt and black pants and jacket accessorized with a big white pearl rosary-style necklace. When he arrived at the altar, he took his place in front of a large screen that read, in black block lettering, “What Are You Worried About?”
Providing architectural structure to this recital were short settings of the traditional Latin Mass text composed by Shaw. An upbeat Kyrie was followed by a beautiful, hovering, chant-like Agnus Dei. The Credo felt dramatic, undergirded by warm harmonies from the piano. The Gloria and Sanctus flew by, snippets of monophonic beauty for Tines to explore. Tines himself, in collaboration with composer Igee Dieudonné, provided the Benedictus in the form of a gently swaying, whisp of a piece titled Vigil.
The meaty portions of the recital filled in the spaces between this light liturgical frame. Here Tines sang melismatic Bach, lyrical gospel, and music by Black composers dead and living (Margaret Bonds, Julius Eastman, Tyshawn Sorey). Thoughtfully toggling back and forth between Baroque and contemporary music, he consciously and lightly blurred stylistic edges. Pianist Adam Nielsen aided these shifts expertly, liquifying the Bach slightly here, emphasizing articulation in a gospel accompaniment there.
Vocally, musically and emotionally, Tines was in masterful control all evening. The audience clung to soft falsettos and relished in the warm depths of his range. Spritely vocal acrobatics mesmerized. Well-articulated consonant releases sparked with meaning. In Tyshawn Sorey’s setting of “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” the composer straightens and stretches the melody, controlling it. As he sang that work and Margaret Bonds’s “To A Brown Girl Dead,” Tines held himself to a luscious simmer.
And then, when he reached the penultimate work on this recital program, Tines unleashed. Emotionally, vocally, spiritually, he locked into a different gear when he launched into Julius Eastman’s powerful acapella work, Prelude to the Holy Presence of Joan d’Arc
The piece is declamatory and unrelenting. Here was Tines, in a religious and recital context of his choosing and creation, boldly having his say. Giving Eastman a say. Giving Black people and queer people and anyone who has felt excluded by religion or classical music or America their say. All evening the music was lovely. A beautiful recital. Here the music was its own force, pinning me to my seat and engulfing me.
Christianity and classical music. Both are old, Western, predominantly white traditions steeped in rituals and rules. Rituals and rules can be useful and beautiful. They can also suffocate and exclude.
I walked into Tines’s recital with religious and classical music baggage. (I doubt I’m the only one.) Tines gave me a safe space in which to unpack some of that
I grew up singing Moses Hogan’s “Give Me Jesus” all the time in church. I know it by heart, its melody seemingly embedded in my DNA. But I grew up singing it in an all-white church that was part of a denomination founded by segregationist racists. As a kid it never dawned on me that the music I was singing was written by a Black man. Until Tines sang it Wednesday night, I hadn’t heard the song in years, having tossed it aside decades ago along with my Baptist hymnal
Tines presented Hogan’s song simply, like a sweet lullaby. It soothed my soul. And I felt conflicted. As an African American, this is his music, his birthright. But because white people steal so much in this country, I grew up thinking it was mine.
The subtext of Tines recital was an exploration of the tensions I was feeling personally, tensions that are quintessentially American.
As religious services often do, “Recital No. 1: Mass” asked those in attendance to contemplate our sins and those of our fathers, bathed us in mercy, and left us with something to think about.
The screen at the front of the church moved through several simple texts throughout the recital. In the end it asked a simple question: “But How Will You Do Better?”