American Spiritual Ensemble performs at Hendricks, speaks on historical music

Wednesday, March 11, 2020
The American Spiritual Ensemble visited Hendricks Chapel yesterday afternoon on its 25th anniversary tour across the United States.

The group, led by Everett McCorvey, will be livestreaming their next concert “Lift Every Voice and Sing!” in the Setnor School of Music Wednesday from 8 to 9:30 p.m. The American Spiritual Ensemble will be joined by the Setnor School of Music choirs for the show. Due to concerns surrounding COVID-19, the show will be livestreamed.

During the ensemble’s visit, McCorvey showed a segment from a 2017 PBS documentary called “American Spiritual Ensemble.” The documentary explained the historical ties American spiritual music has with slavery and emancipation.

Alicia Helm McCorvey, a soprano in the group and wife of McCorvey, said the songs the ensemble performs reflects on the history of Black individuals in America.

“The spirituals are the songs of the enslaved people,” Helm McCorvey said. “In many ways, the American Black folks here now — we’re like hybrid corn. We had to adapt and develop in this United States. We are a unique people of this particular environment.”

For the performance portion, ensemble members performed “I Thank You, Jesus,” “Hear My Prayer” and “Every Time I Feel the Spirit.” McCorvey said there is a distinct difference between spiritual music and gospel music. In starting the American Spiritual Ensemble, he wanted to show people the difference and preserve spiritual music’s notable styles.

“Spirituals came before gospels. Gospel music really came in the 1900s, whereas spirituals are three to four hundred years old,” McCorvey said before the documentary screening. “I wanted to make sure that the history of the music, the story of the music was not lost.”

Erica Gabriel, a first-year member of the American Spiritual Ensemble, sings a solo piece called “Watch and Pray.” The song tells the story of a mother telling her child that she will be sold into slavery in Georgia. While “Watch and Pray” tells an incredibly somber story, Gabriel says that she loves to sing because of the songs’ stories.

“I also love the stories that are just jubilant and joyful like ‘True Religion,’ and just really speak to the community — the community of the enslaved, which now translates to the community of the African American church and the Black community in general,” she said.

Gabriel, who won the 2018 American Traditions Vocal Competition gold medal, is one of many new and young members to the ensemble. Many of the members of the ensemble are classically trained singers with a few professors and teachers of performing arts.

Emma Pitts, a sophomore studying vocal performance, said the entire performance moved her. While she grew up around gospel music, Pitts said that the spiritual songs, especially Gabriel’s performance, “broke her heart” because of the deep and intense themes.

“I feel like it comes from a more authentic place than a lot of classical music,” Pitts said. “It was really amazing. I loved it.”

Original Article
The Daily Orange
March 11, 2020 at 7:40 p.m.