February 21, 2024

Princeton University Glee Club Hosts Renowned Spiritual Ensemble

By Nancy Plum

The Princeton University Glee Club, currently under the direction of Gabriel Crouch, has maintained a long history of collaborations with vocal artists and ensembles who come to Princeton to coach the chorus members and perform with the Glee Club in a joint concert. This past week, as part of its 10th anniversary “Glee Club Presents” series, the chorus invited to campus the professional American Spiritual Ensemble, which has sustained a mission of keeping the American Negro spiritual alive for more than 25 years. Founded and led by Everett McCorvey, the Spiritual Ensemble seeks to preserve what McCorvey called “folksongs of the Negro slaves” which were not only a source of comfort, hope, and faith throughout centuries, but also a clandestine form of communication.

The Glee Club and Spiritual Ensemble performed together Saturday night at Richardson Auditorium, presenting a program of spiritual arrangements ranging from reflective prayers to fervent songs of praise. Soloists from both ensembles were featured within the nearly 20 pieces performed. During the evening, McCorvey gave the Richardson audience a lesson in an American musical tradition, using the arrangements performed to demonstrate the many sides of the spiritual genre.

The 80-voice Glee Club and 40-voice Chamber Choir opened the program with three pieces showing diversity in compositional style and expressive musical emotion. Singing from memory, the choristers were able to lean into the direction of both McCorvey and Crouch and find passion in the music. “Sit Down Servant” began with the raw sound of a work song, but quickly evolved to a high-energy performance with many dynamic swells and quick rhythms. Singing in mixed formation, the Chamber Choir was especially able to exhibit well-tuned women’s voices in a complex harmonic arrangement of “He’s Got the Whole World in his Hands.”

Spiritual arrangements have been composed in numerous formats, including for both ensemble and solo voice. Much of the American Spiritual Ensemble portion of the concert was devoted to a set of solo spirituals featuring the individual members of the chorus, accompanied by piano and percussion. The singers of the Spiritual Ensemble all have extensive experience in national and international opera houses, and each soloist brought a unique charisma to the stage. Tenor John Wesley Wright in particular brought the house to rapt attention with a fervent rendition of “I Know I’ve Been Changed.” Princeton University alumna Tanyaradzwa Tawengwa accompanied herself on an mbira, a plucked instrument from her native Zimbabwe, in a graceful “Balm in Gilead.”  Soprano Alicia Helm brought the angels down from the sky with an expressive singing of “Come Down, Angels” and bass Kenneth Overton conjured the dramatic vocal style of Paul Robeson in “Steal Away,” a staple of Robeson’s repertory. Other standout soloists from the Spiritual Ensemble included countertenor Darryl Taylor, baritone Roosevelt Credit and soprano Hope Koehler.

The Glee Club and Spiritual Ensemble joined together to close the evening with three spiritual arrangements recalling a Baptist church singing tradition. In “You Must Have that True Religion,” featuring soprano Jeryl Cunningham-Fleming, the choruses provided a very full sound, with fresh and youthful enthusiasm. The University Glee Club was founded in 1874, when Ulysses S. Grant was president of the United States, and the country was struggling to recover from the Civil War. The years leading up to the ensemble’s formation could easily have been when some of the spiritual tunes heard Saturday night came to be. This convergence of musical factors made Sunday’s performance all the more significant in the music’s historical relevance and the ensembles’ sense of togetherness, creating an evening both choruses and audience will not likely soon forget.

The Princeton University Glee Club will next perform on Friday, April 19 and Saturday, April 20 at 7:30 p.m. in Richardson Auditorium with the Princeton University Orchestra. This concert will feature the Glee Club and Orchestra together with soloists Anthony Dean Griffey, Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen, and Andrew Foster Williams in Sir Edward Elgar’s “Dream of Gerontius.” Ticket information can be obtained by visiting tickets.princeton.edu.