National Cathedral Choir to Turn Spirituals into Art

The National Cathedral Choir, led by conductor Angel Gil-Ordoñez, will pay homage during Black History Month to Harry Burleigh, a former slave and father of African-American spirituals turned mainstream art songs.

The event, “Deep River: The Art of the Spiritual,” will take place Feb. 28 at 7:30 p.m. at the Cathedral, which is also the last pulpit that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached from before his assassination in 1968.

Gil-Ordoñez, director of PostClassical Ensemble (PCE) and principal guest conductor of New York’s Perspectives Ensemble, said the performance will inspire while telling the fascinating story of how planation songs and spirituals reached the status of art songs.

“During the 2017-18 season, PostClassical Ensemble was invited to the Cathedral series and we resented a program called ‘The Trumpet Shall Sound’ with the participation of African-American bass-baritone Kevin Deas, juxtaposing religious baroque arias with African-American spirituals,” he said.

“PCE’s program always tell a story,” Gil-Ordoñez said. “In this case, we are going to tell the fascinating story of how planation songs/spirituals, thanks to the influence and amazing arrangements of black composers Harry Burleigh and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, reached the status of Art songs.”

Pairing multimedia elements with live performances to chart the history of African-American spirituals in classical music, the performance will include a 150-person choir featuring Deas and members of the Metropolitan AME Church and area high schools.

​Founded in 2003 by Gil-Ordoñez and Joseph Horowitz as an experimental orchestral laboratory, the PCE has already been dubbed “one of the country’s most innovative music groups” by Philip Kennicott of The Washington Post and “exhilarating” by Alex Ross of The New Yorker.

​”The Ensemble’s point of origin is the conviction that musical events demand a sense of occasion, and that this criterion has been sacrificed to familiarity and routine,” Gil-Ordoñez said. “PCE is committed to radically rethinking the concert experience, to refreshing both format and repertoire. All PCE programing is thematic. And many programs integrate theater, dance or film.”

Following the concert, musicians will join scholars from Georgetown University to discuss the history behind the music, the origins of jazz, and the contemporary implications of cultural appropriation in music.

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Lauren M. Poteat

Lauren Poteat is a versatile writer with a strong background in communications and media experience with an additional background in education and development.

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