Arrangements of African-American spirituals have been a part of the art chorus tradition for so long that they have attained their own genre status.
Even when watered down in cheesy arrangements, spirituals are among the most potent and compelling music an American chorus can sing. Yet, most professional choirs are content to plug in a set of two or three in a concert. Not that this is lip -- or vocal cord -- service. It's just that more context is available if a choir opts for it as the Pittsburgh Camerata has done in its "Out of Africa" concerts.
Based on the concert I attended Saturday night at Mt. Lebanon United Methodist Church, I believe this is the most remarkable program that artistic director Rebecca Rollett has created in her 13-year tenure of, well, remarkable programming.
She assembled a collection of works that stood on their own but gained by a context that included readings before each. Poems by African-Americans such as Anne Spencer, James Weldon Johnson and Frederick Tillis, and settings of poems by Langston Hughes (by Ricky Ian Gordon and Nancy Galbraith), provided a framework for the arrangements of spirituals and composed music that the choir conveyed with tip-top ensemble and soaring climaxes.
Ms. Rollett was adept at identifying and heightening the sweet spots of this music. The composed music was unknown to me, and I am the richer for having heard it. Ms. Galbraith's treatment of Hughes' "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" had infectious rhythm. Adolphus Hailstork's "Nocturne" paired a partly hummed, partly sung setting of Jim Curtis text with a hushed accompaniment of shimmering harmony. A vibrant piano prelude by Florence Beatrice Price referenced stride piano and ragtime as it explored intriguing harmonic progressions. The pianist here was Mark Carver, a stalwart presence in the local music scene. He rumbled here but then plumbed the depth of a fascinating prelude by Margaret Bonds called "Troubled Water," as compelling as the bridge that later would span it by Simon & Garfunkel.
The performance featured several soloists from the ensemble, notably an Adele-esque Kate Clark in an arrangement of "City Called Heaven" and Lenny Young with a Dan Tyminski inflection (the singer of "Man of Constant Sorrow" in the Coen Brothers film "O Brother, Where Art Thou?").
The concert will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, Highland Park. Tickets: $15 and $20; www.pittsburghcamerata.org or 412-421-5884.
Andrew Druckenbrod: email@example.com or 412-263-1750. Blog: Classical Musings at post-gazette.com.