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Pauline Lerner

Christmas concert review: Kathleen Battle at the Kennedy Center

December 24, 2007 at 6:32 AM

When I found out that Kathleen Battle was giving a Christmas concert at the Kennedy Center, I bought a ticket right away. The last time I heard her, she sang only gospel and jazz, and she was magnificent. I ignored the other people on the program -- Joel Martin (on piano) and the WPAS (Washington Performing Arts) Children of the Gospel Choir. I won't ignore them again. The concert was wonderful and full of surprises.

The first surprise was the group of people waiting outside the the door to the building. They were young to middle aged, white, and healthy looking. They were sitting on camp chairs, drinking from thermos jugs, and chatting, and I saw warm sleeping bags piled up nearby. They were obviously not street people or protesters, so why were they there? Another concertgoer answered my question. Later this month the Kennedy Center was going to put on a free Messiah sing along performance, but tickets were required. Tickets would be available the next morning, and these people were going to camp out overnight to be at the head of the line for the free tickets.

The next surprise was in the entrance hall inside, where one side of the hall was cordoned off. On the other side of the rope was a long line of young girls in ballet costumes -- tutus, tights, and ballet shoes. I asked someone about them and was told that they were trying out for bit parts in a performance of The Nutcracker.

As I walked through the lobby, into the concert hall, and then to my seat, I noticed something unusual about the crowd. Normally, the concertgoers are almost all white, including middle aged to senior Americans and Europeans of all ages. This time, there were many African American women, all dressed beautifully. A few of them spoke English with accents, suggesting that they were born in another country, probably somewhere in the Caribbean or West Africa. They all carried themselves very proudly, as if they had come to root for the home team.

When I took my seat, I read the program and saw many Christmas related songs, some that I liked, some that I didn't like, and some that I had never heard of. I read the program a second time and saw "The program will include selections from the following." Kathleen Battle decided what she would sing as she went along and told the pianist before she started each piece. (I've seen Itzhak Perlman do something similar, but he makes it a real comedy. He has a large stack of papers in his lap. He goes through them one by one and tosses them everywhere on the stage. By the time he finds what he wants to play, the audience and the musicians on stage (a pianist or Pinchas Zukerman) are laughing heartily.) The first two songs Kathleen Battle sang were classical -- Rejoice Greatly (from Handel's Messiah) and the Schubert Ave Maria -- and she sang them beautifully. She is 59 years old, and her voice isn't what it used to be, but her musicianship and artistry were as good, if not better, as ever. Her singing was very moving, and she still has a remarkable ability to engage the audience.

The next surprise came when the Gospel Choir sang their first song, "O Come O come Emmanuel," a song that makes me think of old cathedrals lit by tapers with a choir singing slowly and sweetly. The Gospel Choir, led by Stanley J. Thurston, artistic director, sang a very different version arranged by Mr. Thurston himself. It was sung in the African American gospel style. It was very lively, to say the least. The audience got excited and clapped along during the whole piece. It was a bit of culture shock for me, but I loved it. I also loved the African American gospel style of "Go Tell It on the Mountain" as sung by the choir.

Yet another surprise was in store for me. During the next segment of the concert I felt as if we had been transported into a jazz club. Each piece began with a long, jazz solo introduction played magnificently by the pianist who had played in other styles earlier in the concert. He always sounded very good, but when he played jazz, his music was dazzling. Kathleen Battle seemed to have been transported to the jazz club with the pianist. She sang Christmas carols and other happy songs in the style of a torch singer. She sounded wonderful in this genre, too. She sang "My Favorite Things" and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," two songs that I don't like, but when she sang them like a torch singer, I loved them. One sign of a very good musician is that he or she can make you love something you previously disliked.

Of course, after the program there were encores. The last encore was "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," sung by Kathleen Battle. I've heard it sung slowly, sadly, yet with a touch of relief. Kathleen Battle sang it as a happy song. I've been told that in some parts of this country, gospel songs about death and dying are sung as happy songs because of the joy of going to heaven.

Overall, the songs in this concert were beautifully performed, often in styles which were surprising to me. I left feeling that my spirit had been strengthened.

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