A large and diverse crowd packed Kleinhans Music Hall on Friday for a rare appearance by star soprano Kathleen Battle, who was singing a concert of spirituals. People dressed up. They brought kids. There were a lot of people new to Kleinhans. Ushers worked overtime trying to get everyone settled.
Battle rose to the occasion.
She looked beautiful, in a scoop-neck, spaghetti-strap black gown with a long, ice-blue shawl. After intermission she re-emerged with a shawl of magnificent magenta.
She radiates the aura of diva. Enjoy it while you can, because we do not see this type too often anymore, least of all in Buffalo. She sipped water from a cup that, from the balcony, looked like a chalice. (Good for her. I’m sick of seeing bottled water on stage.) She made many exits and entrances. Acknowledging applause, she shook the hand of both Associate Concertmaster Amy Glidden and Assistant Concertmaster Ansgarius Aylward.
It seems, too, as if she has a sense of humor. She had a girlish kind of self-deprecating way of acknowledging the crowd’s applause, kind of shrugging it off.
After every concert you love – and I loved this one – there is a moment you particularly take with you. My moment was Battle singing, a cappella, a song called “Over My Head.” The words went something like, “I hear music in the air, over my head – there must be a God somewhere.” Her voice, alone, sounded like a morning bird. I get tears in my eyes just thinking about it.
Battle turned and sang a good part of that song to the orchestra, her back to the audience. She does things her own way. She also had a wonderful habit of ending a song on a high note, soft and clear and out of the blue. You could hear the audience gasp.
In her 60s, she sounds exquisite. She sang a generous collection of about a dozen spirituals, some by herself, and some with the huge New Beginning Chorale Ensemble. Directed by Ella Robinson, this is a mighty group. Its zesty, impeccably calibrated performance of “Soon Ah Will Be Done” was a highlight.
Occasionally, things were sketchy. I got nervous when Battle would begin a song on her own (she carries her own little pitch pipe) and the chorus would join her after a few lines. That’s a tricky proposition, and the transition was not as seamless as it should have been. It was also hard throughout the night to catch all of the words Battle was singing.
Even so, her voice was a thrill. It’s light but strong and floats over the orchestra. All the songs were moving, with a power that goes beyond words. They are such testaments to faith, and faith under the worst circumstances.
“Jesus, Lay Your Head in the Window” is such a sweet sentiment. Battle gave a lovely simplicity to “Mary Had a Baby.” She gave “Fix Me, Jesus” an affecting humility, holding out her hands. You can tell she has occupied the world’s great opera stages. She can communicate.
“Fix Me, Jesus” was a conversation with the chorus, as were several other spirituals. Again, kudos to the chorus: Not every group can hold its own with a great opera soprano. “Let Us Break Bread Together” was simple and genuine.
There was a touch – not too much – of spoken word, to put the music into historic context. We heard the graceful, eloquent writings of Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass. One excerpt ended: “The good spirit was from God, and to Him we offer praise and thanksgiving.” You could hear calls of “Amen,” and the hall burst into applause
Michael Morgan, on the podium, has a fluid, relaxed manner. He kept the concert moving smoothly.
The concert began with the lovely “Land of Peace” from William Grant Still’s “Africa.” I will never understand why Still’s music is not in the mainstream American repertoire, up there with Aaron Copland. He should not be confined to black-history concerts.
This piece had colorful, skilled orchestration, the kind the BPO responds well to. Morgan looks like the kind of conductor musicians respond well to, and he brought out the music’s fine points, including the commanding trombones, the subtle woodwinds. The ending was a stunner. A little girl in front of me turned to her mom and whispered: “Wow!”
Battle ended the night with an encore, the famous spiritual “Were You There,” about Christ’s crucifixion. The arrangement was by Jacqueline Hairston, who was in the audience.