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Kathleen Battle sings spirituals at UCLA's Royce Hall

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Frederick Douglass, the great 19th century orator, writer and former slave, once wrote of the music he regularly heard emerging from the fields and houses where he and other slaves toiled, “I have sometimes thought that the mere hearing of those songs would do more to impress some minds with the horrible character of slavery, than the reading of whole volumes of philosophy on the subject could do.”

Those words were recited Saturday at UCLA during soprano Kathleen Battle’s “Underground Railroad” program of African American spirituals, in which she offered convincing proof of Douglass’ theory, with inspired assistance from pianist Cyrus Chestnut and L.A.’s Albert McNeil Jubilee Singers.

It was the kind of intelligently conceived evening that all too often is restricted to February for Black History Month, one whose message and music are relevant any day of the year.

The 63-year-old soprano guided the near-capacity crowd in elegant Royce Hall through nearly two dozen traditionals, beginning with “Lord, How Come Me Here?” through the show-closing reading of “He’s Got the Whole World In His Hands.”

Douglass’ other observation about the songs of slavery could as easily have been a description of Battle’s treatment of the songs she selected: “They told a tale of woe .… They were tones loud, long and deep; they breathed the prayer and complaint of soul boiling over with the bitterest anguish. Every tone was a testimony against slavery and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains.”

Few singers from the classical music and opera realm can hope to approach the authenticity Battle displayed. All too frequently, classically trained singers who approach music from the folk repertory lose the immediacy and raw emotion of songs -- however much they respect that music.

In such music, a hunk of coal can be more valuable than a polished diamond. Battle honored the coal, applying her burnished tones, masterful phrasing and still impressive range in service of the primal feelings that infuse these songs. Her delivery at times was breathtakingly pure and nuanced, at others unprepossessingly conversational.

After jazz pianist Chestnut opened with an instrumental, “Tribulation,” full of angry, dissonant chords and runs, Battle came onstage with no introduction, the choir seated behind her.

She’s been well known, and highly regarded, for the dramatic quality she employed in the opera repertory, and immediately it was clear this was going to be no lighthearted run-through of pop-flavored material.

Displaying a troubled expression, she clutched at the lengths of the ivory satin wrap over her black velvet gown and sang, “Lord, how come me here? I wish I never was born.” The quiet harmonic humming of the Jubilee Singers behind her amplified the sense of mourning.

In the face of such hopelessness in temporal life, the promise of a better one beyond may be the only source of comfort. “Go Down, Moses,” connected the travails of slaves with those of the Israelites enslaved by the pharoahs, sharing the cry, “Let my people go.”

Growing up in the church and being exposed early on to the gospel tradition, Battle drew on that foundation throughout the night. She bent notes, using bluesy phrases to convey the anguish Douglas wrote about when she sang the line “Dark midnight was my cry” in “Give Me Jesus.”

Chestnut was given several solos in which he flashed his adeptness with stride, gospel and jazz piano traditions. The only sign of Battle’s reputation as one of classical music’s most temperamental divas came up playfully when she made a subtle nod to Chestnut, who dutifully walked off stage, secured her a cup of tea and demurely brought it back and handed it to her.

Members of the choir read half a dozen excerpts of Douglass’ writing, words that were interspersed among, and helped illuminate, the songs.

The songs coursed from expressions of human desperation early on to spiritual realization (“Over My Head”), transcendence (“Ride Up in the Chariot”) and, ultimately, joy (“Let Us Break Bread Together”).
It’s a journey that Battle made relevant to anyone who walks the earth.

RELATED:

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Music review: Kathleen Battle sings a precious recital

-- Randy Lewis

 Photo: Kathleen Battle. Credit: Douglas Foulke.

 
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