NEW YORK—This year, October has felt like Black History Month at Lincoln Center. First, there was Robert Sims’s concert dedicated to the memory of Roland Hayes, the first African-American to sing with a symphony orchestra. Then later in the month, the New York Philharmonic began the series curated by its Artist-in-Residence Eric Owens.
The first concert at David Geffen Hall (formerly Avery Fisher Hall) was “In Their Footsteps,” a tribute to Marian Anderson, Betty Allen, George Shirley, and William Warfield, all of whom had appeared with the Orchestra. Shirley had acted as narrator at the Hayes concert and even sang a cappella a spine-tingling rendition of the spiritual “Were You There?” at the end.
Before each segment of “In Their Footsteps,” filmed testimonials were shown, presenting notable singers, such as Denyce Graves, Simon Estes, and Jubilant Sykes, speaking about the achievements and influence of the honorees.
The concert began with the orchestra, conducted by Thomas Wilkins, performing the overture to Scott Joplin’s “Treemonisha.” The remarkable work deals with the lives of African-Americans during Reconstruction and attempts to merge ragtime with grand opera. There was never a staged performance of the opera during Joplin’s lifetime (1868-1917).
After the overture, soprano Laquita Mitchell sang “The Sacred Tree.” The singer she was honoring, Betty Allen, can be heard performing the aria in a complete recording of the opera recently released on Pentatone Remastered Classics.) Allen would have approved of Mitchell’s rendition.
Mitchell was followed by tenor Russell Thomas singing “Wrong Is Never Right,” which delivers the still relevant message that we should help the weak and act with honesty. Here and later in “Ingemisco” from Verdi’s Requiem, Thomas sang with power in a voice reminiscent of the late Jon Vickers.
Mezzo-soprano Deborah Nansteel (replacing the ill Marietta Simpson) performed pieces associated with Marian Anderson: “Two Blue Eyes” from Mahler’s “Songs of a Wayfarer” and the spiritual “On Ma Journey Now.”
Soprano Janai Brugger sang sweet renditions of Gounod’s arrangement of Bach’s “Ave Maria” and “My God is So High.” The young members of the Dorothy Maynor Singers delivered the upbeat “Ev’ry Time I Feel the Spirit.”
Eric Owens, in a tip of the hat to William Warfield, sang “Ol’ Man River” from “Show Boat” (which Warfield had done in the 1951 movie) and two songs from “Porgy and Bess:” “I Got Plenty of Nuttin'” and, with Ms. Mitchell, “Bess, You is my Woman Now.” The recent Broadway revival of the Gershwin work would have been much better if Owens could have played Porgy.
The singers all joined with the orchestra to perform Copland’s arrangement of “Simple Gifts” along with a selection from his “Appalachian Spring.”
This was an auspicious beginning to the concerts that Owens is putting on this season. Now, if only the Met would present “Treemonisha” or revive “Porgy and Bess.” In any event, as the concert made clear, the New York Philharmonic was in the forefront of presenting black opera singers in the first half of the 20th century.
Barry Bassis has been a music, theater, and travel writer for over a decade for various publications.