Celebrate the Spiritual

B YourselfKathleen Battle brings Underground Railroad to the Alys Stephens Center.

By Phillip Ratliff 

It’s a Sunday afternoon and I’m watching a YouTube recording of the extraordinary and breathtakingly beautiful Kathleen Battle singing the Fruhlingsstimmen waltz (by Johann Strauss II). Herbert von Karajan is conducting, and Battle is skating effortlessly across the melody’s contours. That tone! How to describe it? Is it the sound of a crystal-clear sheet of ice? Battle is at the height of her immense powers, a gift of range and dexterity—and, quite famously, not one of sonic heft. Although Battle made her professional stage debut performing Tannhauser, her delicate voice should never be consigned to the banal task of belting out Wagnerian arias. Hers, rather, is a voice that Mozart and Bach speak through.

My 10-year-old, Avery, overhears from the next room my obsessive scrubbing back and forth over cherished passages. “Is that Kathleen Battle you’re listening to?” she asks. I’m floored at how deftly she matched name to voice and wondered aloud how she managed the feat. “My music teacher doesn’t stop talking about her,” she said.

So, it appears that Kathleen Battle, at age 67, whose performing career has both defined and transcended her era—has become the stuff of the modern-day music education curriculum.

Battle’s first professional experience was, in fact, as a public school music teacher. And these days, Battle’s heart for teaching is again soaring, so to speak, in her collaboration with choral students across the country, including those from Huntsville’s Oakwood University for a concert on Oct. 16 at the Alys Stephens Center. Jazz pianist Cyrus Chestnut will join Battle and the Oakwood Aeolians.

The program is Underground Railroad: A Spiritual Journey. “These were the songs sung in the slave cabins and in the fields, an outgrowth of an ugly and tragic period in American history. At the same time, this beautiful music, a new art form, was born,” Battle told me in a recent phone interview.

Battle says she will arrive in Birmingham nearly a week before the performance with a fluid, rather than a fixed, idea of the program. Audiences will recognize many of the more familiar titles, including “Fix Me, Jesus,” “There Is a Balm in Gilead,” “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” and “City Called Heaven.”

Battle hopes that her young collaborators understand the resources one has to bring to any musical genre. When Battle walks into a rehearsal for Underground Railroad, she says, she carries with her the same arsenal she used to execute Fruhlingsstimme—“the best tone, the best delivery, the best technique.”

“I enjoy sharing with young and old alike what I have learned about spirituals from great vocal coaches with whom I have been privileged to work, such as Robert Sadin, the late Sylvia Olden Lee, and others. But my deepest connection to spirituals is through family and church,” Battle says. “My father, born in Bullock County, Alabama, had a beautiful tenor voice: He sang in Gospel quartets and would switch to bass as needed. My oldest sister, Carol, probably has the best voice in the family. For me, the approach to spirituals versus the approach to Bach or Mozart is different. Vocally similar, yet stylistically different. Spirituals are an oral art form—evolving, even transformative and healing. Spirituals are universally loved and revered. There are no boundaries or barriers with regard to who loves this music. Generations of people the world over embrace Spirituals. The importance of this beautiful music is undeniable.”

Adding to lessons in performance practice is a sober look at a difficult chapter in American history. Slaves used the system of safe houses and clandestine routes known as the Underground Railroad to escape to free states and in some cases on into Canada. Readings of works by Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, interspersed throughout, illuminate this journey.

Despite the historical specificity of the experience that gave rise to the Negro spiritual, Battle is sure everyone will find Underground Railroad a blissful experience. “There are no barriers to who likes this music. Everyone embraces it—people in France, Amsterdam, Ann Arbor, Birmingham. Spirituals have no boundaries. That’s the beauty of them,” Battle says. The spiritual, Battle suggests, comes from a deeper place in the human experience, one that people from all times and places can appreciate. The same human impulse that compelled slaves to escape through the Underground Railroad, is at play throughout human history. It’s an idea that Beethoven wove into his Ninth Symphony. It informed the gospel singing of the picket lines of 1963 and the March on Selma in 1965. The move from enslavement to freedom, from darkness, to light—it’s the metaphor that gave the musical genre, the spiritual, its name.

It’s that “lofty, beautiful” universality that Battle hopes her student collaborators draw on and communicate at the Alys Stephens performance.

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