Bringing light to Lincoln and a history lesson in song

Saturday, January 18, 2020
The American Spiritual Ensemble is coming to Nebraska on the eve of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

The African American singers will perform in the state for the first time Sunday afternoon at First-Plymouth Church, in a stunning sanctuary with towering, arched windows, a grand pipe organ and heavenly acoustics.

They will sing spirituals such as “Go Down Moses” and Broadway show tunes such as “The Circle of Life,” a songbook from the African American tradition.

They will premiere “Rise Shine!,” a new spiritual arrangement by Marques Garrett, professor of music at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Singers from Quinn Chapel will join them, along with the First-Plymouth choir, the Nebraska Wesleyan University Chamber Choir, and children from the Malone Center, singing “This Little Light of Mine” and “We Shall Overcome” with the renowned ensemble.

The Abendmusik concert is free.


You just show up at 3 p.m. and take a seat and let the music wash over you.

There will be history, too. Spoken and sung and written down in the program, to tuck away and remember.

Words from the ensemble’s musical director, Dr. Everett McCorvey: “The American Negro spiritual is the mother music that gave birth to jazz, blues, gospel and pop. The spiritual was born in America during the most difficult time in our history and helped America find its voice.”

The voices of slaves, denied their freedom and their families and often their language, he wrote.

“The melodies they sang in the cotton fields, in their homes and at camp meetings, became the American slaves’ musical expression.”

It will be powerful.

“There’s so much we can learn about how those songs came to be and the people who sang them,” said Tom Trenney, First-Plymouth’s music director and Abendmusik’s artistic director. “The music is going to lift up some of that message of light.”

Light and unity, the theme for the Abendmusik season.

He brought up the words of MLK. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

“We’re going to sing into that idea.”

I called the church Thursday to talk to Trenney, after I heard about the concert.

I’d been thinking about the South Street Temple and the hate dumped on its doorstep in the form of spray-painted swastikas. The power of one sick person to frighten and infuriate and cause pain.

And about the idea of music as a way to bring people together.

I’d listened to the ensemble online and read some of its history, how the musicians gathered, flying in from their hometowns to sing together all over the United States and Europe and South Africa, bringing together both beautiful voices and an important message.

Choir director McCorvey voiced it this way: "Performers and audiences alike know this music is as relevant today as it was during the Civil War. We all feel this music deeply and viscerally, from our toes to our hearts, from memory to marrow."

It’s why Abendmusik brought them here, said Trey Coley, its executive director.

“We really want to have a local impact, a local dialogue about an underrepresented element of the American songbook which is the African American tradition. We live in a diverse world and it is really vital that music reflects, honors and incorporates that diversity.”

The stage Sunday will reflect that diversity, he said.

Everyone is welcome.

When Abendmusik members planned this season and booked performers, they held tight to the idea of unity and how much it's needed in our fractured society, Coley said.

This week, it settled more deeply.

“We all have been reminded of the importance of social justice, and kindness and friendship,” Coley said. “And when I think about the American Spiritual Ensemble and its message, it’s an ever-going journey for social justice. This is a piece in the movement toward that.”