Palm Sunday afternoon, March 28th, brought ASU's fine Concert Chorale and Chamber Singers to the ACAD stage in a program of sacred music to match the solemnity of the beginning of Holy Week.
Ranged against the walls enveloping the audience the singers opened, in antiphonal style, with Orlando di Lasso's 16th century motet "Musica" (a paean to music). The divided voices wafted the beautiful lines back and forth across the hearers' ears toward each other in an impressive contrapuntal mechanism that set just the right mood for the evening's fare.
Then processing, in practiced discipline, they mounted the stage to continue with excerpts from Handel's Messiah -- a work they knew well, having triumphed with it in their annual Christmas concert this past December. Conductor Marcia Mitchell Hood selected four of the most finished and impressive pieces from that concert including the choruses "Hallelujah" and "Worthy is the Lamb (... that was slain, and hath redeemed us to God by His blood)." She then added the finale from Part III; the grand fugue "Amen" which represents the zenith, so to speak, of the whole work. Mimi Noda lent her usual artistic authority at the piano to these incisions.
Included in the body of the program were three short songs, divided between the men of the chorale, and the Chamber Singers comprising the, tongue-in-cheek, "best" voices. This hyphenated, in quotation description is just that. The designation, Chamber Singers, must mean "smaller group" only, since no aural-technical distinction can be made here. They're all splendidly trained.
The selection "Prayer of the Children" was deaf-signed by voice professor Shawn I. Puller. Here, the stage lights were dimmed. A spotlight lit Puller as he signed the sung words, creating a pleasing theatrical effect. There's always something new, something different in Hood's imaginative quiver.
The program coda was a tribute to the late composer and arranger Moses Hogan (1957-2003). Hood chose seven spirituals from his impressive body of work. Hogan gave a new impetus to these songs. Following the line set by composer-arrangers such as R. Nathaniel Dett, John W. Work, Harry T. Burleigh, William L. Dawson, Hall Johnson, Noah Ryder among many others.The ending spiritual "Elijah Rock" has been, figuratively, "owned" by Jester Hairston. He made it famous, and it made him famous. We thought that, perhaps, it could be taken no further. We may well have been mistaken. Hogan's treatment is altogether new, different, pushing the borders of this song, and many others, well past the imagination of anything that has gone before.
The earlier masters of this genre would, could be nothing less than well pleased. They understood that these songs in their primitive state were a treasure trove to be exploited by those with the inspiration and imagination to do so.
Those of us who favor ourselves by hearing these young people are enriched well beyond those who, unfortunately, do not.
James Marquis is a composer and emeritus professor of music at Albany State University, retired.