Oratorio Chorale Ends Season with Amazing Grace

Oratorio Chorale
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Brunswick
May 20, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

“Amazing Grace” is a simple pentatonic tune (it can be played on just the black keys of a piano), which has become a cliche at public funerals, but Emily Isaacson and the Oratorio Chorale, in Sunday’s concert at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, turned it into something magical, with drones, fugues of intermixed stanzas and more musical devices than you can shake a baton at.  It wasn’t a Negro Spiritual, but it sounded marvelous nonetheless.

Spirituals were at the heart of the program, presented in collaboration with the Portland Abyssinian Meeting House, which will be offering an Emancipation Celebration at St. Paul’s on June 10.

Isaacson programmed a varied selection of these works in roughly chronological order, from the darkest days of slavery through emancipation to the 20th Century. The Chorale was ably assisted by Reginald Mobley, countertenor, Mary Sullivan, soprano, Judith Casselberry, reader and Scott Wheatley, piano.

Casselberry’s readings, beginning with Frederick Douglass, were valuable in establishing context and significance, but sometimes difficult to understand. It would have been helpful to include them in the program.

Mary Sullivan’s solo in “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” with the chorale emulating a desolate wind, reminded me of Marian Anderson. She was equally effective in livelier spirituals.

Stealing the show, however, was countertenor Reginald Mobley. Countertenors are often featured in Baroque and earlier music, but using one as a soloist in spirituals is rather unusual. As usual with Isaacson’s innovative ideas, this one worked perfectly.

Mobley , although he sounded a little unsure of himself at first, soon came into his own, with marvelous renditions of “Were You There?” and “Steal Away.”  Toward the end, his “Precious Lord” was a prime example of what Gospel shout should be, full of perfectly timed musical ornaments, delivered in a powerful mezzo-soprano voice. with infectuous enthusiasm.

My favorite among the well-known songs by the chorale alone was a fast-paced, perfectly rendered version of “Ezekiel Saw de Wheel.”

If I had any quarrel at all with the concert, it would be with its very variety. The Gospel songs are good enough on their own without shifting choirs around, marching, alternating piano accompaniment with a cappella, and using (a few) gussied-up arrangements.

That said., it was a very satisfying coda to the Chorale’s outstanding 2016-2017 season.

(For more on the subject matter of this concert, see “Negro Spirituals” on this site.)

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.