Carnegie Hall 2017 Review: Frederica Von Stade, Jake Heggie, Harolyn Blackwell, Credo & Dallas Street Choir Put Together Moving Concert Calling For Tolerance

By Greg Moomjy

This season classical music in New York experienced several firsts. The Metropolitan Opera presented “L’Amour de Loin,” the first opera composed by a woman to be seen at the Met in over a century. The newly revamped New York City Opera presented the American premiere of “Angels in America,” the first of its annual LGBTQ opera initiative to be presented each June in honor of Pride.

And on June 14th Credo and the Dallas Street Choir made their Carnegie Hall debut in “Imagine A World: Music for Humanity,” making it the first time a musical ensemble dedicated to the homelessness has performed there. Valley Lodge, the transitional homeless shelter’s choir based on the Upper West of Manhattan for the last 30 years, also sang.

Under the direction of Dr. Jonathan Palant, the program featured a diverse repertoire including African American spirituals, pieces from American Music Theater, as well as opera. There was also a premiere of a new work by Jake Heggie, which is a new arrangement of “Spinning Song (1976)” by George Hub Miller, a 20th-century American composer. The Dallas Street Choir performed in conjunction with Credo, and both groups were directed by Palant. The Dallas Street Choir is currently comprised of 22 members and Credo is an 115-singer mixed chorus also based in Dallas.

Palant is a master of dynamics. Under his direction, the members of Credo sang with a sweet sound that one hears in traditional English choirs. They easily could make quick changes in volume for dramatic effects. The idea for creating the choir was conceived by Palant when he came across a piece called “Requiem for the Homeless.”

This star-studded event featured operatic luminaries such as soprano Harolyn Blackwell, and mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade performing selections from Schwartz’ blockbuster musicals, “Godspell” and “Wicked” as well as “Séance on a Wet Afternoon” in tandem with Heggie’s arrangement of “Spinning Song.”  Schwartz wrote the 2009 opera based on the British 1964 cult film “Séance on a Wet Afternoon,” which was performed in California and New York City Opera.  Harolyn Blackwell performed ‘Lucky’ from that opera and von Stade joined Blackwell in Wicked’s “For Good.”

Jake Heggie is one of America’s greatest contemporary classical composers. He’s made noteworthy contributions to American opera such as “Moby Dick” and the recent “Great Scott” which starred Joyce DiDonato. However, his songs show him to be an adept composer of American art song. Like Schubert, his songs are lyrical and occasionally use rhythm in innovative ways to tell a story. Heggie’s new arrangement of “Spinning Song” demonstrated his brilliance as a composer and an arranger. The original “Spinning Song” by George Hub Miller has a strong ostinato baseline reminiscence of Schubert’s “Gretchen am Spinnrade.” In Heggie’s version, the accompaniment is looser with more filigree.

The soloist, Cody Burnette, had a profound voice with great breath control for the grace notes he added to Craig Hella Johnson’s “I Love You/What A Wonderful World.” During his ovation, he cried. All the soloists exhibited good phrasing and were adept at many styles such as gospel and pop. The choirs both sang with enthusiasm. However, the balance was occasionally off between soloist and choir. More than a few times, it was hard to hear the choir. However, a re-worded song, “Beautiful City” from “Godspell,” which reflects racial tensions in Los Angeles, was sung affectingly by a soloist who had a smooth timbre and great legato.

Von Stade’s voice still has a velvet quality and she is a great actress. For dramatic effect, she can still execute a thrilling diminuendo, making her rich mezzo voice thin and soft. She was appropriately hammy for “Le Vie en Rose.”

Heggie and von Stade performed selections from “Paper Wings,” a song cycle written for von Stade’s daughter’s 16th birthday. The selections, with lyrics by von Stade herself, detailed events that occurred in their respective childhoods. One such hilarious example was when she pretended to walk on a tightrope to “rescue” her young daughter from falling off of a roof.  Heggie accompanied this event with jazz riffs on “Für Elise.”

Harolyn Blackwell’s introverted rendition of “He’s Got the Whole World In His Hands” was less exuberant and a far more personal communion with God and she sang a show-stopping grace note at the end. She gave a similarly child-like interpretation of “Lucky” from “Séance on a Wet Afternoon,” which made the case for the opera as a collection of solo arias.

In all, it was a superb evening at the concert hall. Palant spoke at length about peace, love, and acceptance. While the theme may have been a little too obvious, especially in today’s political climate, perhaps a strong reminder is just what we need.