The American Spiritual Ensemble comes to life at Raleigh cathedral

Monday, January 31, 2022
This past Thursday, NC State LIVE kicked off its spring schedule with a breathtaking performance by the American Spiritual Ensemble (ASE) at the Holy Name of Jesus Cathedral in Raleigh. The cathedral is fittingly shaped like a cross, and the ensemble set up in the center right in front of a grand hanging crucifix.

The ASE is directed by founder Everett McCorvey, a tenor in his own right. After introducing himself to the audience, McCorvey led his ensemble in the first spiritual of the evening, “Walk Together Children.”

The traditional spiritual is meant to be performed acapella and the lyricism is story-like. McCorvey grew up in Montgomery, Alabama during the civil rights movement and was introduced to spirituals at his church.

“I fell in love with spirituals at a very young age,” McCorvey said. ”Spirituals were really the foundational music of the civil rights movement. My father was a deacon in the church where Reverend Ralph David Abernathy was the minister.”

Many know Rev. Abernathy was a close friend and assistant to Martin Luther King Jr., who lived roughly two blocks away from Dr. McCorvey in Alabama. Dr. McCorvey, being so closely tied to the movement and involved in his church, developed a passion for the American Negro spiritual.

“When I became an adult and a practicing musician myself, I realized that what was happening in the country was that gospel music was becoming more and more popular and these traditional spirituals were being lost,” McCorvey said.

Out of some 6,000 spirituals in history, only about half have been written down and preserved. Much fewer are sung regularly, presenting America with a worthwhile challenge of preserving these historical songs. One soprano soloist of the ensemble, Hope Koehler, addressed this challenge after having performed one of the crowd’s favorites, “I Wanna Be Ready,” earlier on in the evening.

“Music is changing a lot because a lot more new styles and new genres are being introduced to higher education as an area of study,” Koehler said. “So one of the many ways we make this music acceptable is by singing it.”

The ASE sang over 15 spirituals across the performance. One profoundly powerful spiritual was, “Go Down, Moses” which told the well-known story of Moses’ argument with Pharoah to let God’s people go and the subsequent exodus of the Israelites from Egypt.

“I just think it’s important for this music to be in company with Moller and Strauss and Mozart and all those early composers,” Koehler said. “This music deserves its place, so if you want to change the mindset, change the curriculum.”

John Wesley Wright, a tenor soloist performed an incredible arrangement of “I Know I’ve Been Changed”.

“I think it has a lot to do with playing the narrative that this is our music,” Wright said. “The spiritual is a great integration of African, African-American, and European styles and I believe that history belongs to all of us.”

The ASE closed the evening with “Old Time Religion/When the Saints,” arranged by Keith McCutchen and McCorvey himself. The performance received a standing ovation, and McCorvey had a profound explanation for how he hoped these spirituals would be heard.

“These songs are not about hate, they’re not about jealousy, they’re not about retribution,” McCorvey said. “They’re about love, they’re about sharing love, and they’re about looking for a better tomorrow. They’re about giving hope to the soul and hope to a person. One of the things I say all the time is that people are enslaved in so many ways … So when people hear these songs, it helps give them hope and strength for whatever is enslaving them.”

Original Article
Shelby Bryson, Correspondent Jan 31, 2022