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February 16, 2005

Brunelle and singers dig for diversity within diversity

City Pulse (MI):

It takes guts for a foreigner to peddle sausages in the heart of Germany. When gentleman vocalist Roland Hayes, deemed by many scholars to be the first black concert artist, went to Vienna in the 1920s, he did something even braver. He sang Schubert and Beethoven songs to audiences that expected him to rear back, mop his brow and belt out Negro spirituals. “When he began singing, there was murmuring in the crowd,” says choral conductor Philip Brunelle, who is bringing an unusual re-creation of Hayes’ life and work to the Wharton Center stage on Saturday. “But by the time he finished the first number, he had convinced them.”

Brunelle, director of the hundred-strong choral group VocalEssence, has good reason to be fascinated by the long-forgotten Hayes. He’s pulling a similar stunt himself with his 15-year-old “Witness” series, bringing the work of unsung and undersung black composers to the concert stage. Brunelle is among the most honored and accomplished choral conductors on Earth, but he must have encountered misunderstanding and resistance… “Because I’m white?” asks Brunelle, obviously well acquainted with the question. “Absolutely not. My goal is to open people’s eyes to a much wider diversity of music within the African-American tradition. I’ve had a wonderful, warm response from audiences of all colors.” He’s also proud of the thanks he’s gotten from the black composers whose work he’s showcased over the years, many of whom were unknown even to each other. “Last year we had five major African-American women composers. None of them had even met each other,” he says. “That was an amazing situation.”

Saturday night’s concert will consist of two parts. First, the Ensemble Singers, whom Brunelle calls “a phenomenal group of 32 professionals,” will perform a wide variety of music by several black composers, many of them still living. These pieces include some of the many commissions the Witness program has made over the years. The second half of the evening will be devoted to the unique multi-media Hayes biography, a combination of theater and music. A variety of compositions associated with Hayes — classical and traditional — will be performed by the full choral ensemble. Two actors playing Hayes and his brother will read a selection of the letters they wrote to one another. Scenes from their lives and times will be projected behind them as they perform.

There is plenty of drama in Hayes’ life for the performers to dig into. Gifted with a magnificent voice, he made his way up to Boston, eventually singing with the Fisk Jubilee Singers. Stubborn prejudice gave him a hard time in the United States, but when Hayes was invited to sing with the King and Queen of England, doors were suddenly flung open back home. He was invited to sing with the Boston Symphony and performed at Carnegie Hall.

Brunelle says that even in the 1920s, Hayes insisted his recitals be open to both blacks and whites. “People always talked about his gentle nature, how kind he was to other people,” Brunelle says, adding that Hayes mentored African-American giants of the stage such as Paul Robeson and Marian Anderson. “He was very successful, and later on he went and bought the plantation his parents had been slaves on. It’s a great story.” A great life, yes, but so dignified it wouldn’t throw so much as a morsel to today’s tabloid dogs. “Part of the reason he was not well known is that he wasn’t a showman in the Pavarotti school,” Brunelle explains. “He was a very quiet man. I’ve talked to people who heard him live, and they said he had a way of drawing focus and attention while remaining quiet. No histrionics, he just sang.”

Posted by acapnews at February 16, 2005 12:08 AM