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Moses Hogan Singers

By Bruce Lamott

San Francisco audiences are slowly awakening to the talents of Moses Hogan. Two previous visits with his Moses Hogan Chorale, a large and superbly-disciplined volunteer chorus from New Orleans, were greeted by disappointingly small audiences; but Saturday's performance by the newly-constituted Moses Hogan Singers in Herbst Theatre received the acclaim they deserved. This professional ensemble of 28 singers drawn from all over the country is a virtuoso instrument, capable of exhilarating power and mystical quiet. Credit goes to Ruth Felt and San Francisco Performances for believing enough in these keepers of the flame of the Negro Spiritual tradition to defer concern for box-office success.

In the past decade, Hogan's arrangements and performances have revitalized interest in the "arranged spiritual," continuing in the tradition of Harry T. Burleigh, William Dawson, and Jester Hairston. These pioneers established such staples as "Ain-a That Good News," "Ride the Chariot," and "Amen" (sung by Hairston for Sydney Poitier in "Lilies of the Field") in the repertoires of high school, collegiate, and community choruses for decades. Too often relegated to encores, these works have taken a back seat in recent years to the jazz-influenced style of gospel, with its instrumental backup, earthy improvisations, and kinship with Motown. The musical legacy which Hogan draws upon is not jazz-influenced, but rather "jazz-influential," a cornerstone in the foundation of jazz.

Listeners expecting an evangelical revival of hand-clapping, arm-waving, and musical testimonials were in for a surprise: the experience of the Moses Hogan Singers was a revival of a different sort. There is an inherent spirituality in their performance that trusts the music itself, but of the "still, small voice" variety. Transcendent moments of sustained harmony, dynamic nuance, floating solo lines, and even silence drew the listener into texts and melodies that needed no salesmanship. The sound of the ensemble is rich and complex, pure without being pallid, austere but warm and expressive.

Smooth vocal consonance

Though capable of an electrifying climax which miraculously managed to resonate even in the atrocious acoustics of Herbst the voices blended into a sonorous whole, shaped by Hogan with subtlety usually reserved for Palestrina.

The pace of the program grew with the intensity of a Baptist sermon. From the sustained hush of the invocatory "Hear My Prayer" (in memory of Hairston) to the ostinatos surging to the climax of the closing "Elijah Rock," Hogan selected a repertoire which displays a wide range of both the spirituals themselves and his ingenuity in setting them. His arrangements are very respectful of the melodies, harmonically conservative, and often repetitive without resorting to gimmicks for variety. "I Stood On the River of Jordan" is a strophic setting performed with breathtaking simplicity. He uses ostinatos effectively, both for cumulative energy as in "I'm Goin' To Sing Till the Spirit Moves In My Heart" and to express the drudgery of slavery in "Wade In the Water." "My Soul is Anchored In the Lord" breaks into rapid-fire antiphonal dialogue between women and men.

The principal soloists from the chorus were intensely expressive without resorting to theatrics. Tenor Brian Stratton twice held the audience in suspense as he floated into the vocal stratosphere in "Let Us Break Bread Together," sung to a sparing piano accompaniment played by Hogan. The radiant sound and commanding presence of soprano Ali Waheed gave the plaintive "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen" strength and dignity despite the adversity expressed in the text. Bridget Bazile contributes a warm, plummy soprano sound to the women's section, where she is often deployed to top off obbligato lines. Her riveting intensity and technical control were best displayed in the seamless legato of "Were You There?"

The intrusion of speech

Least successful in the program was a narrated medley in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The power of the spirituals themselves was diminished rather than enhanced by Walter Bonam's narration, powerfully delivered by Stacey Sartor with musical interludes by Hogan. Perhaps more effective as a soundtrack, in live performance it was an unfortunate case of preaching from the choir.

The tradition of "classical" a-cappella spiritual singing is alive and well at the hands of Moses Hogan.

(Bruce Lamott is choral director of the Philharmonia Chorale and the Carmel Bach Festival. He is also an instructor in music and Western Civilization at San Francisco University High School and conducts choral classes in the San Francisco Conservatory of Music's Extension Program.)

2002 Bruce Lamott, all rights reserved
S A N | F R A N C I S C O | C L A S S I C A L | V O I C E
April 13, 2002
A project of the San Francisco Foundation Community Initiative Funds

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