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Pauline Lerner

October 10, 2004 at 6:08 PM

I heard Kathleen Battle at the Kennedy Center and she was phenomenal. It was the most moving musical performance I’ve been to in a long time.

When I first read the program and found that she was not singing any opera music, I was disappointed. After hearing her, I realized how foolish I had been. The entire program was spirituals and jazz, both Latin and U.S. Her backup band was fantastic. All its members were stars in their own right, and each one had lengthy solo breaks to show it. I felt that the keyboardist/director, Cyrus Chestnut, and the saxophonist, Kirk Whalum, were especially good, and, judging from the audience response, they thought so, too.

Kathleen Battle started with, “I Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray.” The audience was hushed and strained to listen. Ms. Battle has a small voice, but she can really project. When she sang softly, she held the audience spellbound, and when she rolled her head back and sang out, her voice seemed to cover the ceiling of the concert hall and fill every place within with sweet sound. Some of my favorite spirituals which she sang were “This Little Light of Mine” and “Steal Away.” She sang her own arrangement of “Coming Home,” which I know from Dvorak’s New World Symphony, but she used the traditional words. I’ve always loved this music. I even remember the first time I heard it, when I was about 10 years old. It always brings to mind some very strong images, often images of a place that I love and dream of returning to. When she sang the song, the images were especially strong and moving for me. She concluded the scheduled part of the concert with some songs by Duke Ellington: “Prelude to a Kiss,” “Heaven,” and “Come Sunday.”

Then came her encores, four of them, starting with “Summertime.” I’ve heard that song many times, but it sounded different this time. She sounded like such a good mother. She had fun with the sax player, as the two of them had a musical dialogue with little musical jokes. She sang, “God of Love, See My People Through,” an old song which couldn’t be more timely now, when the world is wracked by hatred which threatens the very continuation of the human race. Her final song was, “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” one last, great thrill for the audience.

The audience itself was unusual for a symphonic concert hall. There were a lot of African American women in the audience, which is usually almost all white. People were quite friendly and spoke excitedly to each other before and after the concert.

On my way out, I heard a woman in her 20s say to a friend, “When she sang, ‘He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,’ I thought she was going to make us all stand up and hold hands.” I decided that this song was rather 60s-ish (that’s when I first heard it) and that this young woman, modern and cynical, was really missing a lot. I figured that she probably couldn’t relate to “Prelude to a Kiss,” an old fashioned, sentimental love song I love. The quick fix, blatant sexuality which is in vogue robs its practitioners of some great stuff.

Postlude: When I got home, I did some reading on the Internet about African-American singers of classical music. I was reminded of the barriers broken by Marian Anderson, one of my heroines, and the persistence of racial discrimination in classical music in this country. I learned that Marian Anderson used to end many of her concerts with, “He’s Got the Whole World in his Hands,” and a friend later told me that a number of other singers have done the same thing. Kathleen Battle was paying homage to those who went before her, and I’m so glad that I was there and was part of it.

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