Chorale carries on long legacy of black spirituals

Walking into a recent rehearsal of the New Orleans Black Chorale as it prepared for its Dec. 8 Christmas concert evoked thoughts of being in heaven and hearing soulful angels singing.

“The beautifulness is the richness, the tonality we bring to the audience,” said the chorale’s Kathy Celestine as it sang “Mary Had a Baby.”

At that rehearsal, conductor/musical director Dr. John E. Ware, a professor of music, director of chorale activities and Xavier University of Louisiana music department chair and holder of a doctoral degree in conducting, culled the most from his 30-plus-member ensemble.

Its members, who range from college-age to their 80s, are Xavier University graduates, current students, musicians and men and women with a penchant for African-American spirituals.

“It’s out of sight,” being a member of this group, said soprano Gloria Love, a member since 1980. “I’ve always loved to sing, and learned more about music and reading music here, the camaraderie and just being part of the preservation of African-American music.”

A star-filled concert

At its upcoming Christmas concert, themed “Follow the Drinking Gourd, Follow the Star,” the chorale will animate songs that mention a star – the “North” star that led the wise men to Jesus. (Ware mentioned how the Big Dipper is shaped similar to a drinking gourd.)

Ware reworked an old spiritual sung during the time of slavery – “Follow the Drinking Gourd” – to make it more appropriate for Christmas. 

“I’ve reset the tune … changing the words from ‘For the old man is awaiting for to carry you to freedom’ to ‘For the King of Glory carries you to freedom.’”

Other spirituals on the Christmas program will feature “Whose that Yonder,” a plantation song that has survived through the years; and Felix Mendelssohn’s “Christus.”

Spirituals are not gospel

The New Orleans Black Chorale grew from an ensemble that sang in 1980 with the New Orleans Philharmonic Symphony when it presented “Symphony in Black,” a concert highlighting the contributions of black artists to New Orleans. Edwin Hogan, the brother of Moses Hogan, was its first conductor, leading the group only a year before he died. Ware has been its director ever since, assisted in past years by associate conductor Dr. Malcolm Breda. Veronica Downs-Dorsey has been its pianist almost since inception. 

“Everybody liked the style and songs we were singing, so we decided to continue,” Celestine said. “It’s 40 years later, and it’s still going strong.” 

Ware said the chorale does “heritage music in the academic tradition as opposed to the gospel tradition. People think it’s gospel, but it’s not.”

“Our contribution is traditional music tracing the American Negro spirituals and contemporary African-American composers,” Ware said.

The chorale is among similar groups nationwide that are dedicated to performing the music of African Americans.

“I venture to say we are probably the oldest,” Ware said of the chorale, “because you seldom have groups that have stayed together as long as we have.”

Ward said people forget the variety of music that goes on in New Orleans other than jazz and gospel. New Orleans had the first opera in the country.

“I think what we (the chorale members) are doing is a very important service to music, a very important service to New Orleans, and it is another way New Orleans culture is distinctive,” Ware said.

The New Orleans Black Chorale gets around. It has sung for Pope John Paul II in 1987 at the convocation for Catholic universities at Xavier University, the Innocence Project, at the New Orleans Museum of Art, for the Downtown Development District, several New Orleans mayoral inaugurations, the American Red Cross, the United Negro College Fund’s national meetings and evening concerts at City Park.

Accolades also have come, including a 2017 nomination for a Big Easy award for its 2016 “Treemonisha” (an opera written by Scott Joplin) performance in Mexico City with the Orquesta Sinfónica de Minería, conducted by Carlos Miguel Prieto, music director of the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra. 

“I think it’s wonderful to be nominated,” Ware said. “We are competing with the Symphony Chorus and other chorale organizations that are ‘semi-professional,’” he said.

Ware received the Big Easy Award’s lifetime achievement award in 2010 for his work with New Orleans Black Chorale and Xavier University of Louisiana.

The summer before, the New Orleans Black Chorale sang “Porgy and Bess” with the LPO in Mexico and did a tribute to Moses Hogan at Jazz and Heritage Festival’s gospel tent. In February 2018, the group appeared in Natchitoches at the Cane River Festival.

Recent and upcoming concerts

In 2019, the New Orleans Black Chorale will perform Feb. 17 at 5 p.m. its annual Black History Concert at Xavier University of Louisiana’s Administration Building Auditorium, 1 Drexel Drive, New Orleans. It is at this concert where scholarship money is given to two deserving college music students.

While chorale membership is aging, the chorale continues to keep alive the black spiritual tradition.

“It’s a part of the mission of the N.O. black chorale – the performance and preservation of American Negro spirituals and African American composers,” Ware said. “We feel the musicians … will become the creators of our music in the future and perpetuate the performance of the spiritual and African American composers.”
For chorale details, contact Celestine at kcelestine@mcglinchey.com.

Christine Bordelon can be reached at cbordelon@clarionherald.org.

NEW ORLEANS BLACK CHORALE

 ⇒WHAT: Christmas concert, “Follow the Drinking Gourd, Follow the Star.”

 WHEN: Dec. 8, 6 p.m.

⇒WHERE: Trinity Episcopal, 1329 Jackson, Ave., New Orleans.

⇒ OTHER: Donations taken for annual college student scholarships.

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