Photos and Story by Enrique Geronimo / Contributing Writer
Rosephanye Powell is a living legend among composers of choral music. She is currently a Charles W. Barkley endowed professor and professor of voice at Auburn University. Powell not only conducted the MTSU Women’s Chorale Invitational event at MTSU Thursday night, which was held to commemorate Black History Month, but also composed many of the pieces they performed.
A choir of 100 women’s voices completely filled Hinton Hall at the Wright Music Building. As soon as the concert began, an unmatchable liveliness truly brought each song to life.
Many of the songs contained African languages, which when paired with the almost tribal-like thumping of the percussive instruments like a djembe, congas, tambourines and shakers. It really helped to paint the picture of African American spirituals and songs. Many of the performances also had some light choreography; whether the choir was swaying back and forth in unison or clapping, the added movement gave the group a large stage presence that had the crowd fixated.
“Ascribe to the Lord” was a piece where the pianist, Allison Blumenthal, really shone. According to Powell’s website, the piano accompaniment should be played “with rhythmic energy and drive” and give a sense of “awe and stirring waters,” which Blumenthal executed perfectly.
“Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child” is a traditional African spiritual that was “not only used as a form of spiritual thanksgiving but also a form of communication on a plantation that only the slaves would understand,” Powell said. She added that the slaves were “expressing their heartbreak of being away from their family.”
Powell brought this piece into a new light with her arrangement.
“I told the ladies that I imagine a slave that had been whipped almost to death, and after being beaten and beaten, this slave was at the very end of his life,” Powell said. “So what you will hear is a threefold; the slave’s soul is leaving him as he makes his way to heaven. He is also going back in his mind to Africa and asking in his native tongue, ‘Where are the mothers,’ and you also hear the sociological aspect because the slave is looking for freedom … not a freedom coming from the Underground Railroad but freedom coming from death. At the end, you’ll hear almost a priestly chant as some singers sustain one pitch, almost an evidence of flatlining. And at the very end of this entirely modal and minor song, you will hear a major chord to signify his soul has finally reached freedom through death.”
The last song they performed was an all original piece by Powell in which she drew inspiration from Maya Angelou’s poem of the same name, “Still I Rise.” The original poem is a salute to the strength of women and Powell wanted to embody that in her own words, since Angelou did not want her own poem to be used.
This performance was extremely powerful and showcased Powell’s composing and conducting talents. This number ended the show with a bang, as Powell invited everyone to sing along and joked, “We’re going to sing a part of it again, but remember if you sing badly, sing to yourself.”
As the joyous performance came to an end, the crowd began to applaud and stood shortly after, giving the performance a standing ovation. Everyone seemed much livelier and had smiles on their faces as they exited.
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