Tucson Desert Song Festival 2020 Review: America Sings
Morris Robinson & True Concord Deliver A Mesmerizing ShowcaseBy Maria Nockin
On Saturday, January 25, 2020, the Tucson Desert Song Festival presented a concert of American songs by Metropolitan Opera bass Morris Robinson and Tucson choral group True Concord.
American Folk Hymns
The chorus opened with American Folk Hymns, the first of which was “How Firm a Foundation.” Collected by John Rippon, it is said to date to 1787. True Concord’s men sang the first verse with strong masculine harmony and were joined by the women on “Fear not, I am with thee.” They sang a steep crescendo with the “rivers of sorrow” and their pulsing tempo added texture to their description of “fiery trials.” All of these musical strands flowered into lyricism as the “soul leaned on Jesus for repose.”
The ensemble followed that hymn with a work based on the pentatonic scale, “The Road Home.” The hymn consists of a folk tune from “The Southern Harmony Songbook” of 1835 and a modern, non-specific religious text by Michael Dennis Browne. True Concord began each verse with the soft, smooth sound of “oo” before enunciating the words. On the last verse, “Rise up, follow me,” the sopranos sang a sweet obbligato above the rest of the usual soprano-alto-tenor-bass (SATB) choral sound.
Accompanied by Michael Dauphinais at the piano, the group sang “Saints Bound for Heaven” in an arrangement by Mack Wilberg. The hymn contains an easily remembered 19th century folk melody and in this rendition offered short but beautifully performed solos by members of True Concord.
The next group consisted of “Train Songs” from an age in which the railroad was the most popular mode of travel. They sang “ I am a Maid/Man of Constant Sorrow” with the words “I’m bound to ride these tracks forever.” As I listened to their choral dialogue I was reminded of a folk character from the “Flying Dutchman” who sails the ocean for time immemorial waiting for a damsel to rescue him. Does his spectre also stalk women from a boxcar?
Originally a rousing field hand work song, “This Train is Bound for Glory” was popular at religious revivals in the 1920s and again in the 1960s. With piano accompaniment and rhythmic interplay, the members of True Concord sang this bright tune that incorporates the spiritual “There is Joy in that Land.”
Aaron Copland arranged the political campaign song “The Dodger” and it is still amusing listeners today with its vibrant tune and timelessly appropriate lyrics. Here, True Concord simply sang it as originally written because it did not need decoration to be effective.
Finally, we got to see and hear Morris Robinson. The applause was thunderous when he and accompanist Dauphinais appeared to perform more Copland arrangements.
The first was a lyrical rendition of the sad, memory-laden “Long Time Ago” and it was time to bring out the handkerchiefs. Merely by the colors in his magnificent voice, Robinson told the unwritten tale of love lost.
He followed that song with Copland’s version of the well known 1848 Shaker hymn, “Simple Gifts.” At first he sang mezzo voce but he repeated the verse with the broad tones and glorious forte of his full voice. With only a few gestures, for Robinson drew the audience in to his vocal pictures of “the river that flows by the throne of God.” Dauphinais’ rendition of Copland’s dissonant accompaniment allowed Robinson to dialogue with the piano, an interesting aspect of the performance.
The revival song “Zion’s Walls” formed the finale of the first half of the program as the music of Robinson’s bass voice surmounted those of the chorus in waves of glorious sound.
After the intermission, True Concord sang three Stephen Foster songs: “Oh! Susanna,” “Gentle Annie,” and “Nelly Bly.” “Oh! Susanna’s” rhythmic tempo got the audience’s toes tapping until of the memory of “Gentle Annie,” with its sweet piano arpeggios and harmonies from the women, brought the poignancy of lost love to mind. “Nelly Bly” brought smiles back to the audience with its SATB dialogue and memorable chorus lines.
True Concord’s rendition of Gershwin’s “Summertime” proved that art can recreate a long gone season and its heat, even in the dead of January. Dauphinais’ jazzy and languid accompaniment and the singers’ smooth tones reminded listeners that “Summertime” can be a state of mind any season of the year. Rhythm and brisk tempi always keep an audience on the edge of its seats and Gershwin was an expert at using it. “I Got Rhythm” was a vigorous example.
The final group on the program was African-American Spirituals and Songs. Singing a cappella, True Concord brought us the melodic textures of the traditional “Soon Ah Will Be Done” and the more hopeful “My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord.”
Morris Robinson probably has today’s best voice for the Spiritual, “Deep River.” Although I remember seeing movies of Paul Robeson singing them when I was a child, at this performance Robinson filled the bill perfectly for “Deep River” and “Ol Man River,” the tune from Jerome Kern’s “Showboat” which followed it. Robinson did not have to reach for low notes, he simply cruised down to his lower register and they were there with resonance to spare.
The evening’s finale was again traditional. “Witness” for soloist with chorus and piano put everyone in a good mood to mingle with the artists for a few minutes and drive home remembering that the Tucson Desert Song Festival has several more events this week.