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  • Mike Bolton

GOING TO CHURCH:Kathleen Battle and the Underground Railroad

Philadelphia has a rich history connected to the plight of slavery. In fact, Philadelphia Quakers first openly denounced slavery as early as 1688. The city was also pivotal stop on the Underground Railroad. It was thought that if those escaping enslavement could make it to Philadelphia, they could eventually achieve freedom there, in one of the free northern states, or continue on their way Canada. There are several important Underground Railroad stops in Philadelphia including the Johnson House and Belmont Mansion, both of which now celebrate their history as museums. Notable figures in the movement like William Still and Harriet Tubman lived or made their way through the city, while others like Henry “Box” Brown mailed himself to freedom via a crate sent to Philadelphia in 1849.

Clandestine travelers frequently learned about the railroad, its stations and route, whom to trust and who the engineers were through codes in spirituals which were sung in the fields. Lyrics to songs like “Wade in the Water” told escaping slaves to get into the water so that slave catcher’s dogs would lose their scent from the trail. Others like “Follow the Drinking Gourd” instructed travelers to follow the Big Dipper.

The Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts celebrated this legacy in a program of spirituals brought to Philadelphia by superstar soprano Kathleen Battle. Jazz pianist Cyrus Chestnut, harpist Riza Printup and The Philadelphia Heritage Chorale, led by Dr. J. Donald Dumpson, joined her.

Miss Battle hasn’t performed in the city for 11 years and the last time I saw her was in a 1994 performance of Strauss lieder and Mozart’s Martern aller Arten with the Philadelphia Orchestra, led by then-music director Wolfgang Sawallsich. There were two reasons why that concert was memorable: Battle's always-small voice could barely be heard over the orchestra and the concert marked her first public appearance following her opera career-ending dismissal from the Metropolitan Opera by then-General Director Joseph Volpe for “unprofessional actions.”

So 20 years later, how does the 66 year-old Kathleen Battle sound? In a word, spectacular. If the voice is a tad dry and the upper extension is neither as large nor as high as it once was, the voice retains its gorgeous timbre and girlish charm with no trace of wobble whatsoever. She might very well be able to step into the opera stage to sing a very, very good Pamina tomorrow.

As her voice was always small and with age we can't expect it to retain its size, I half expected her to use a microphone. Yet, even without amplification, her voice still has the pinpoint focus which allowed it to carry easily into Verizon Hall. I will say, of all the voices big and small I've heard at the Kimmel, few have "sounded" better in the Verizon's voice-unfriendly acoustic as Battle's. When I've heard singers in the auditorium, it has felt that the sound was coming around me rather than directly at me. That was never the case with the soprano. But, as mentioned, she was accompanied by a harp or a piano with the shorter stick to raise the lid slightly. When she sang with the chorus, I had difficulty hearing her over the ensemble no matter what register of her voice.

One very appreciable aspect of the program were the spoken moments. Several stories were told from guests who shared personal comments from Miss Battle, including that her grandfather had been enslaved, stories of escaped slaves, or Philadelphia’s role in the Underground Railroad. All of this brought a context to the city’s importance in the struggle for emancipation. It effectively gave an auditorium of filled with Philadelphians, music lovers, and historians, a great sense of civic pride and effectively set the tone of the concert. The remarks had the drama and passion of a church sermon at times as the audience got swept up in the emotional stories.

Speaking of drama… Was the soprano above the diva antics that we would expect from her reputation? No. If the program started 30 minutes late, it wasn't her fault but that of delayed Mayor Michael Nutter, who gave opened the program with introductory remarks. When Miss Battle finally made her entrance, she stared at the floor, turned her back on the audience, and only after a few minutes onstage did she begin the program. The reason? An usher was dealing with a seating issue in a disruptive manner. Still, the audience awaited her first note and sat in complete silence during these antics.

She launched into “Lord, How Come Me Here” filling every note with emotion while sometimes pacing the stage. Accompanied by harp and the chorus, it could have been more effective to just stand and sing rather than to emote. Granted, it was the first selection in a program delayed 30 minutes, so nerves could have been an issue. Here’s Miss Battle singing this song extremely effectively in a concert from Carnegie Hall in 1990.

Still, something was amiss. There was a disorganized feel to the program as Miss Battle shuffled papers on a music stand, appearing unaware sometimes of what selection was to come next. I leaned over to my companion and said that she didn’t seem like she was enjoying the experience and he agreed. Dressed as she might've been 20 years ago, she wore a simple black dress with a long train and used a stole as both a prop and accessory. She sometimes fussily played with the stole or kicked her train in a rather distracting manner, as if she couldn’t get comfortable on stage.

Yet, as nerves subsided she relaxed and threw herself into the music. The musical performances were blazing and I’d forgotten what a spectacular musician she is. Miss Battle's ornaments were as assured as the greatest jazz singer, making one wonder what her career might have been like if she had not gone into classical music but jazz instead. Her innate musicality and naturalness of delivery brought the listener in. Her connection to the material helped instill a great communal spirit in the packed Verizon Hall and what a joy it was to have patrons around me burst into applause mid-song to laud a high note, expressive run, or the message of the music. Others hummed along to a spiritual to show their enthusiasm and connection to this moving music.

Helping convey this spirit were pianist Cyrus Chestnut, harpist Riza Printup, and The Philadelphia Heritage Chorale. All were spectacular. Mr. Cyrus, in particular, was a spellbinding talent demonstrating authenticity of style on the keyboard. Miss Battle was extremely generous in complimenting her musicians throughout the program. Dr. J. Donald Dumpson must be praised for the great work he did with the chorus of 30+ voices. In one of the more particularly charming moments of the evening, the superstar was joined by a handful of women from the chorus. They came from the risers and onto the stage. Miss Battle joined them in the center of their line. At times she supportively conducted the chorus and encouraged them, not like a diva, but more like a mentor. Reports from the chorus said that there was no diva on display in rehearsal, just a supportive colleague. Here’s a little clip from the rehearsal.

It was an extremely memorable evening. It was such a delight to see Miss Battle again after such a long time. It makes me regret that we’ve all been denied the chance to see her more frequently in the past two decades. Let’s hope that she returns to Philadelphia in the very near future.

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