For 24 years, VocalEssence, one of the Twin Cities’ premier singing ensembles, has shone a light on African-American musical genius and ingenuity through its Witness concert series. Last year, the Philip Brunelle-led chorus celebrated the work of jazz trumpeter Hannibal Lokumbe, whose composition about his spiritual journey included a live rapper. This year, the company returned to deeper roots. It orbited the life and work of pioneering contralto Marian Anderson (1897-1993).
Anderson, whose visage graced a gold medal issued by the U.S. Treasury in 1980, was a giant not simply because of her training and deeply expressive talent. She overcame racial barriers to her art, including, most famously, the prohibition by the Daughters of the American Revolution from performing in their Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., in 1939.
On Sunday, soprano Marlissa Hudson, accompanied by Charles Kemper, drew from Anderson’s repertoire. It was a questionable choice, given the shift in registers of the singers. But Hudson proved more than capable, delivering with great control and soulfulness. Like Anderson, Hudson suggested that she was dipping into a deep well of perseverance and hope, of spirit and certainty. Her “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” was a moving highlight.
Anderson was played by two performers at the Ordway Center concert. Greta Oglesby brought moral authority to the speaking parts in an educational script written and directed by Jon Cranney. The narrative used a simple framing device. Anderson, in Washington, D.C., to sing the national anthem at the 1963 March on Washington, tells her story to a curious young hotel employee, Alice (Andrea Ivy).
The concert, conducted lyrically by Brunelle, included compositions by David Baker, who set a Mari Evans poem to music, and Elizabeth Lim, who composed Rita Dove’s “Lady Freedom Among Us.” Perhaps the wittiest piece came from composer Elizabeth Alexander, whose playful 1992 setting of Langston Hughes’ 19-word epigram, “I’m Telling You,” was a jazzy delight.