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Thursday, Oct. 9, 2008

Music In Black and White

Choristers explore cultural connections

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In an exchange both choral and cultural, the mostly white Milwaukee Choristers will partner with Detroit's predominantly African-American Brazeal Dennard Chorale to premiere choral settings of Harlem Renaissance poems by African-American composers Robert L. Morris, Northwestern University music professor Robert A. Harris and former Milwaukee resident Judith Baity. The concert, "Exploring Heritage Connections," will be performed Oct. 18 at the Zelazo Center for the Performing Arts.

"It certainly does create this kind of synergy that goes across racial lines, which is always a plus," Milwaukee Choristers Director James Kinchen says about the concert, which coincides with the group's 75th anniversary. "That's always an important thing. And in that way that I think most of us who make art believe, that while standing up on a stage and chirping a note might not save the world, in maybe intangible and indescribable ways, we do make it better every time that we do that."

Kinchen, a music professor at UW-Parkside, and the Milwaukee Choristers first became interested in collaborating with the Brazeal Dennard Chorale, a nationally recognized choir devoted to the preservation and performance of music by African-American composers, after hearing them perform in 2003.

"My folk were like, 'Oh my gosh, we've got to do something with them; they're fabulous, they're awesome,'" Kinchen says. "Then as the idea became fleshed out, the other aspects, like a focus on the racial/cultural piece of this collaboration, fell into place."

Enthusiasm for music-making is the most obvious connection between the two choirs, but Kinchen outlines many more. "For one thing, we are both community-based groups," he explains. "The Germans have a term, 'freichor,' denoting a 'free-standing' choral group-one not connected to an institution.

"That describes both groups and has largely defined our respective histories and our season-to-season realities," he continues. "Both groups have an intense desire to make good art, though [Brazeal Dennard] has really excelled in this way on a national and international stage. But yet, we are amateurs in the best sense of that word-a community of singers, each driven solely by the love of making music."

The choirs are also similar in that each comes from a specific cultural matrix, Kinchen says. But it is in that similarity that vocal and cultural differences begin to emerge. The Brazeal Dennard Chorale "is steeped in a rich and excellent choral tradition that flourished in many of our historically black colleges and universities, especially in the early-to-mid-20th century, and also found a welcomed place in many black churches, particularly in those days before contemporary gospel had taken the hold that it presently has on black church music," he says.

"Our origin is really defined by a kind of Western European-derived, upper Midwest, a cappella choral tradition," Kinchen says of the Milwaukee Choristers. "Even though our roster (and programming!) is more racially and ethnically diverse than when we first started in the 1930s, this lineage still defines our sound and style to a great degree."

The blending of the two choirs' vocal textures is likely to be a treat for choral aficionados, as will be the opportunity to hear world premieres of settings of texts by Harlem Renaissance poets. "That is arguably the greatest flowering of black art in the history of the country," Kinchen says. "Before that movement, there really was no sense of one's being able to use one's black voice anyway one wanted to do it, to be as black as you wanted to, or to draw back from that and be more universal.

"Too few composers have set any of these poems to music," he adds. "This was a chance for us to get at least three of these texts set to music and, by specifying these texts, end up with pieces that complement the theme and general thrust of our project."

The three poems by Langston Hughes and James Weldon Johnson range thematically from universal to more specifically racial. Harris' a cappella setting of Hughes' "April Rain Song" is a colorblind portrait of lovers inside on a rainy day. Baity chose Johnson's "The Gift to Sing" with the Milwaukee Choristers' anniversary in mind.

"I felt that the use of the metaphor of singing and music to help you through life in this situation was really kind of appropriate for this occasion for this musical group," she says. "And also, James Weldon Johnson is a very lyrical writer; his poetry lends itself very well to being set to music."

Kinchen shares Baity's interpretation, but offers a second take on the text. "That poem really speaks so much to the tradition of my people, going all the way back to the time of slavery, when day in and day out there was nothing to look forward to but other than the hardest of labor and illest of treatment," he says. "And yet, it was that ability to make that song that a lot of times got people from one day to the next."

Morris' setting of "The Sacred Fire," an excerpt from Johnson's poem "O Black and Unknown Bards," honors the genesis of the African-American spiritual, what Kinchen calls "that most improbable of miracles that happens when, out of the tragedy of black people being brought here in chains, somewhere some unknown bard begins singing, and the singing then begins to grow. And even though these are supposed to be brutish people, uncivilized, incapable of learning more than how to push the plow or pick the cotton, you know; out of that repertory comes this wonderful music that moves so many people."

Although Kinchen and his choir initially approached the project with purely musical motives, the racial aspects of the collaboration and repertoire and the degree to which he addresses them are an ever-present part of African-American artistic identity.

"That's really sort of one of the struggles, if you will, of being black in America," he says. "And that is: How can you express this in ways that people can relate to and understand? I would say that the bulk of African-American art in whatever medium or genre is sort of trying to communicate, in some way or another, what it means to be black, what it means to have this history, to have people understand where you come from, in ways that maybe they had not thought about. And of course, you know, maybe in the very largest sense, all art does that."

For tickets to "Exploring Heritage Connections," call (414) 354-1933 or visit www.milwaukeechoristers.org.