​American Spiritual Ensemble to Grace Sewanee

by Kevin Cummings, Messenger Staff Writer

During a five-day residency at the University of the South, the American Spiritual Ensemble (ASE) will perform three times for the public in addition to working with area students and music groups.
The Ensemble features some of the top classical singers from around the country performing Broadway numbers and spirituals with a mission of celebrating and keeping the Negro spiritual alive. Everett McCorvey, professor of voice and director of opera at the University of Kentucky, founded the Ensemble in 1995. McCorvey said every time he and the group perform, he is aware of the remembrance at the heart of the music.
McCorvey, 59, was surrounded by the Civil Rights Movement growing up in Montgomery, Ala. When he was in second grade, state troopers on horseback broke up a civil rights meeting in the church across the street from the school’s playground. The troopers rode the horses into the church and started beating people with clubs. The students could hear the screaming even after teachers made them go inside and get under their desks, he said.
He also lived around the corner from Martin Luther King, Jr., when he was in Montgomery. McCorvey’s dad was a deacon at First Baptist Church, where the Southern Christian Leadership Conference often met and civil rights leader Ralph Abernathy was pastor.
“Those days will stick with me my entire life,” he said. “It never leaves my mind. One of the reasons I wanted to create and perpetuate this music is I feel like it is something we shouldn’t forget.”
Negro spirituals started as slave melodies and migrated into choral pieces, McCorvey said. Slaves passed down music orally and when the slaves were freed, the music was something they wanted to forget because it was a reminder of such a terrible time, he said. Their songs gained new life when Antonín Dvorak, a Czechoslovakian composer and director of the National Conservatory of Music in America in the late 1800s, insisted that black people be allowed to attend the conservatory and he placed a significant focus on reviving the Negro spiritual in classical music form.
McCorvey said the students at the conservatory were educated in how to write the slave music down and in the early 1900s to 1920s, choirs at black colleges performed the music around the South.
“People came and heard what happened to the slave people, this time, through music” he said. “The music teaches a history, which has great meaning and importance to the formation of the country.”
McCorvey founded the American Spiritual Ensemble in the tradition of groups such as the Fisk Jubilee Singers, the Hampton Institute Choir and the Tuskegee Choir.
“I remember hearing all these great choirs with a beautiful, full sound; it was something I wanted to emulate,” he said.
César Leal, associate professor of music and conductor of the Sewanee Symphony Orchestra (SSO), became familiar with McCorvey and the Spiritual Ensemble while he was a doctoral student at the University of Kentucky. The Ensemble’s visit coincides with the 30th anniversary of the SSO.
“I have had a close connection with Everett and the ASE for many years and I always wanted to bring them to Sewanee,” Leal said. “I wanted to go big and for the orchestra to celebrate its 30th anniversary with a world class ensemble.”
One of the Spiritual Ensemble’s performances will be with the SSO.
“I am so happy to see so many groups from the University and elsewhere helping to bring the ASE and celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Sewanee Symphony Orchestra,” Leal said. “I am also really happy to see that, in a time of division and instability, music has the power to bring us together. That is our best birthday gift: the support of a community that understands that, now more than ever, we need more music in our lives.”
The University’s Performing Arts Series is sponsoring the residency and all performances are free. The event is also made possible thanks to a grant from the Tennessee Arts Commission and support from All Saints’ Chapel, the Office of the Dean of Students, the School of Theology, the Office of the Dean of the College and Dr. François S. Clemmons.
Here are the American Spiritual Ensemble’s public performances:
On Thursday, Feb. 9, at 11 a.m., the University will host a Community Welcome Assembly at Guerry Auditorium. The event will feature performances with Sewanee Elementary School fifth graders and St. Andrew’s-Sewanee School students.
On Friday, Feb. 10, at 7:30 p.m., the Spiritual Ensemble will perform again at Guerry Auditorium, featuring Jack Jarrett’s medley, “A Tribute to Gershwin,” and Linda Twine’s “Ellington Medley.” In the second half of the show, the Sewanee Symphony Orchestra will join the Ensemble to perform selections from Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess.”
In the finale on Saturday, Feb. 11, at 7:30 p.m. at All Saints’ Chapel, the Ensemble will perform almost two dozen spiritual and Broadway selections.