From the very first downbeat of an overture which provided a beautifully arranged version of the African-American spiritual “Wade in the Water” to a resounding finale selection, “Justice,” which featured the full chorus and the NorthEast Senior Singers, D.C.’s own Congressional Chorus used every opportunity to illustrate why they remain one of the best community-based vocal ensembles in the greater Washington area.
The theme of their 32nd Season Finale Concert, “Let Justice Roll,” served as a somber, yet stark reminder of the centennial of the “Red Summer of 1919” — a summer 100 years ago during which numerous deadly racial conflicts and lynchings occurred in more than 30 U.S. cities including the District. As the heat of the season rose, attacks continued with hundreds of people, mostly Black, being killed and thousands of Black-owned businesses and homes being burned or destroyed.
David Simmons, artistic director for the Congressional Chorus, says he chose the theme and the selections as a means of “our continuing commitment to shine a light on issues of social justice through our performance of outstanding American choral works.”
The program served as the opening concert for the Chorus’s upcoming five-day Civil Rights Concert Tour in Alabama and Georgia slated for July in collaboration with the Grace Chorale from Brooklyn. The combined choruses will perform at several historic civil rights sites in Selma, Montgomery, Birmingham and Atlanta including the National Memorial for Peace and Justice which honors the more than 4,000 African Americans lynched in the U.S.
The centerpiece of the evening, “And They Lynched Him on a Tree,” brought further attention to the horrors of lynching in the choral ballad composed by the Black musician William Grant Still. The lyrics and the haunting melodies, sung with great aplomb and care evoked an eerie sense of déjà vu for this writer — as if I were experiencing the pain of the mother featured in the song whose son falls victim to a lynch mob.
As a testament of the obvious hard work that the choirs and musicians put into preparing for this concert, when closing my eyes, I could not tell if the singers were Black or white. In fact, the only thing that remained clear for me were the soaring notes, the hushed tones, the crescendos and decrescendos that pulled this writer and the rest of the audience along with the choir as they shared their comprehensive prayer for justice and the day when America’s reality replaces its rhetoric.
D.C. native Lavinia Thornton Odejimi, 68, now living in Annandale, says it was her first time hearing the Congressional Chorus and as she left National City Christian Church, she felt “emotional beyond words and more elated than I’ve been in a very long time.”
“This was the music that my mother [Mabel W. Thornton] just loved. She just died recently and I wish that she could have been here with me to hear this choir. She would have been so thrilled,” Odejimi said, adding that prior to her mother’s death, she formed a small group for reflection and education in Springfield at her residence, the Green Spring Village, that combined Blacks and whites together in conversation. The group would be named “Black History, White History, Shared History” and continues to gather since its founding seven years ago and has since grown to more than 70 members.
My personal favorite from the performance was the traditional freedom song that became the unofficial theme song of the civil rights movement, “We Shall Overcome.” This arrangement by Tom Trenney, performed by the chamber ensemble and full chorus, is one that I’ve never heard or sung before. What surprised me is that while I’ve heard this song hundreds of times, I cannot recall any time previous when I found myself unable to complete the final verses because of being overcome by emotion. It was a moment that confirmed for me the stellar quality of the Congressional Chorus.
The Chorus now turns its focus to a summer fundraising event, “Songs That Connect Us,” on June 13, 6-8 p.m. at City Winery. The funds will assist the group as they continue their commitment to their powerful musical ministry. (Tickets can be purchased at EventBrite.com under “Songs That Connect Us.”)
Well done Chorus! Well done David Simmons! Well done, indeed!
Find out more about the Chorus at www.CongressionalChorus.org.