In Their Footsteps: Great African American Singers and Their Legacy
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In Their Footsteps: Great African American Singers and Their Legacy

Eric Owens, Laquita Mitchell, Russell Thomas, Janai Brugger, Deborah Nansteel; Thomas Wilkins & New York Philharmonic

ON OCTOBER 14, the New York Philharmonic presented In Their Footsteps: Great African American Singers and Their Legacy, an unusual concert tribute hosted and curated by Eric Owens, the orchestra’s artist-in-residence this season.  The program gathered music associated with four artists who had significant relationships with the NYPO—Betty Allen, Marian Anderson, George Shirley and William Warfield—and included material that ranged from Bach and Schubert to Scott Joplin and George Gershwin. A genial and charismatic host, Owens offered some brief opening remarks and delivered authoritative performances of selections associated with Warfield—“Ol’ Man River” from Show Boat and “I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin’,” as well as “Bess, You Is My Woman Now.”  His Porgy was joined for the duet by the glamorous Bess of soprano Laquita Mitchell, who sounded more comfortable here than in the low-lying “Sacred Tree” narration from Treemonisha, a number ideally suited to Allen’s rich, velvety mezzo.  Tenor Russell Thomas was in brilliant form in the “Ingemisco” from the Verdi Requiem, which Shirley sang under the baton of Leonard Bernstein in 1969.

In her NYPO debut, Janai Brugger scored a solid hit, her glowing voice deployed with taste and sensitivity in the Bach–Gounod “Ave Maria” favored by Marian Anderson and later charged with joyous wit in Hall Johnson’s arrangement of “My God is So High.”  Mezzo Deborah Nansteel, a late replacement for Marietta Simpson, who withdrew because of illness, sang a beautifully judged performance of “On Ma Journey Now.” The young artists of The Dorothy Maynor Singers, conducted by Yolanda Wyns, contributed a subdued, slightly stiff traverse of “Ev’ry Time I Feel the Spirit.” All of the artists participated in a neatly turned rendition of “Simple Gifts” from Aaron Copland’s Old American Songs, led by debuting conductor Thomas Wilkins.  Wilkins’s leadership of the NYPO yielded an energetic performance, although dynamic levels (especially in the Treemonisha selections) could have been adjusted in favor of the singers and Nasteel’s tender account of Mahler’s “Die zwei blauen Augen” needed cleaner, more idiomatic support.  —F. Paul Driscoll 

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