The African-American poet, social activist, and playwright (among many other mantles he wore) was the father of the Harlem Renaissance and a genre later dubbed “jazz poetry.” A blending of the rhythms and repetitions of jazz music, the poems written during this time were intended to produce a uniquely African-American voice in poetry and break away from the traditional views of style and rhythm found in the literature of the time.
The charm of the style lies in its jazz roots—to go beyond requires not only a skilled, innovative composer but also a performer who is willing to take some risks to preserve the nuance and gesture of not only the poems, but also the art song form itself. Such artistry was on display in the most recent recital given by baritone Donnie Ray Albert as part of the DeSoto Arts Commission’s Uptown/Downtown DeSoto series.
Mr. Albert was accompanied by the Dallas Opera’s Assistant Chorus Master, Julian Reed who was a sensitive, yet sterling pianist in concert with the baritone. The program consisted of three parts: a trio of traditional spirituals, four representative works from the opera canon, and a series of art songs using texts of either African-American poets—most notably Hughes’s work—or songs produced by African-American composers. Albert, who has ties to the area (he did his graduate studies at Southern Methodist University) equated himself with distinction with both the spirituals and the opera selections, most notably in the aria from Gounod’s Faust, "Vous qui faites l'endormie." Albert took special pride in the Mephistopheles role, relishing in the devilish delight and mocking tone of the aria. Albert’s voice was easily up to the selections presented, and was on full display with a warm, inviting tone that could be strong and unyielding as well as translucent and delicate. Each word was clearly placed and perfectly understood.
In most vocal recitals, the first two parts would be sufficient, especially in the current vein of “specialization” to which more and more singers are subscribing. But the gem of this concert was found in Albert’s presentation of the African-American art songs with the Langston Hughes poetry at its core. In the abstract, pairing Hughes’ poetry with traditional art song sounds like a contradiction; the poems were written to eschew much of the older settings that make up the bulk of art song lyrics. While Romantic composers would employ repetition and emphasis of the lyrics, the musical line was still paramount. How does one reconcile the contradiction of “song first” to “poetry as its own accompaniment”?
It didn’t matter to Albert. Settings of Hughes’s “Song to the Dark Virgin,” composed by Florence B. Price; “Faithful One” and “Genius Child,” composed by Robert Owens; Margaret Bonds’s setting of “Minstrel Man”; and Howard Swanson’s “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” were not only flawlessly executed, but bridged the gap between the classical and jazz styles maintained the integrity of both while setting a captivating mood. There were a few sections that would have been awkward in the hands of a lesser performer, but Albert’s demeanor and delivery was distinctively balanced to both the musical line and the poetry, whilst still emphasizing the differences. The integrity of the poetry was maintained, and the juxtaposition of the two normally contrasting styles created a unique and memorable experience. Langston’s words lived on, on his own terms—but those words were accompanied by something remarkable… and performed with sublime care.
» Editor's Note: In the interest of disclosure, the "uptown" part of the The Uptown/Downtown DeSoto series is curated by TheaterJones' chief classical musical and opera critic, Gregory Sullivan Isaacs.