When most Americans think of Africa, the current image that comes to mind is one of blood, sweat and tears.
With its areas of grinding poverty, cyclical famines, oppressive governments, wars and, most recently, Ebola, Africa seems to be a land of sorrows.
But Africa is also a continent of rich humanity, and that humanity will not be suppressed. The Harriman-Jewell Series will present Africa at its best with a concert by the Senegal St. Joseph Choir on Friday at the Folly Theater.
Clark Morris, the executive director of the Harriman-Jewell Series, is a fan of gospel music, and he wanted a gospel choir to be part of the series’ golden anniversary. But he also wanted that choir to be out of the ordinary.
“I’ve been looking for a number of years for an international gospel choir,” he said. “I had listened to a number of recordings and also went to a number of performances in New York and had a lot of interesting but unsatisfying experiences.
“Finally it was through an agent we do a lot of business with that I became familiar with the Senegal St. Joseph Choir from Dakar. I finally found what I was looking for, and I was happy that their U.S. tour aligned with our 50th anniversary season.”
The Senegal St. Joseph Choir is truly extraordinary. Founded 44 years ago by Julien Jouga, the choir is a model for peaceful coexistence between Christians and Muslims.
“They have traditional African songs, even traditional gospel and Negro spirituals that we might hear in America,” Morris said. “But they’ve also combined Catholic and indigenous traditional Senegalese songs and Muslim songs of Senegal into their choral singing.
“They have works that their founder composed for them that combine all of those cultures into one. They also rely on a classical tradition and a tribal tradition.”
The choir wears very colorful, traditional African dress, so there will be lots to engage the eye as well as the ear. And, as you might expect from an African choir, they incorporate tribal drums and percussion into their performance.
“I have a hard time thinking you’ll be able to sit completely motionless throughout the concert,” Morris said.
In the Ebola outbreak currently unfolding in Africa, Nigeria and Senegal are two bright spots. Both countries have largely contained the virus through rigorous measures that include isolating the ill and tracking down any possible future cases. The Senegal St. Joseph Choir has been on tour in the United States since mid-September and, according to Morris, all choir members are healthy.
“Actually they’re from Dakar, and in that region of Senegal there haven’t been any Ebola cases,” he said. “Certainly it’s one of the things that you think about with as much news as there has been about this epidemic.
“People are attuned to the struggles that Africa is having, but I think this choir is going to bring a lot of joy to the audience and allow them to witness and connect with this deep and beautiful culture.”
Kansas City Symphony
There’s something very October about “The Flying Dutchman” Overture.
The howling gales, the rousing sailors’ chorus and the ghostly figure of the Flying Dutchman himself all make for a Halloween tableau.
The Kansas City Symphony conducted by Michael Stern will start off its next concert with this Wagnerian showstopper and will end with Felix Mendelssohn’s popular Scottish Symphony. Also, the Kansas City Symphony Chorus directed by Charles Bruffy will perform choral music by Johannes Brahms and Alexander Zemlinsky.
Mendelssohn had a real love for Scotland, and his Scottish Symphony beautifully captures its heaths and craggy shores. Although Richard Wagner detested Mendelssohn’s music for being too pretty and cultivated and not deep and meaningful (and also for being too Jewish), Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony is as exalted and romantic as anything Wagner wrote. It actually works nicely as a companion to “The Flying Dutchman” Overture.
In between Wagner and Mendelssohn, the Kansas City Symphony Chorus will perform the Schickalslied (“Song of Destiny”), one of Brahms’ great choral works, and the much lesser heard Psalm 23 by Zemlinsky.
Born in 1871, Zemlinsky was a product of the rich goulash of cultures that was the late 19th century Austro-Hungarian empire. His grandfather was a Hungarian who married an Austrian girl, both of whom were devout Catholics. Zemlinsky’s father married a girl from Sarajevo whose father was a Sephardic Jew and mother was a Bosnian Muslim. Eventually the whole family converted to Judaism.
With a background like that, one can clearly see how Zemlinsky fits into the Kansas City Symphony’s World War I theme this year. His Psalm 23 reflects the Austrian musical culture that dominated the 19th century while also setting out its own trailblazing path into the 20th. It’s rarities like Psalm 23 that are making this a most exciting and revelatory Kansas City Symphony season.
When it comes to Baroque music, most classical fans are familiar with German, Italian and French composers. Spanish, not so much.
Yet Spanish Baroque music is some of the richest of the 18th century. It can be as dark as a painting by Francisco de Zurbaran and as glowing as a gypsy campfire.
You can experience the rich variety of early Spanish music when Ensemble Iberica presents “The Spanish Baroque” on Friday at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. The program will include everything from medieval troubadour songs and refined court music to earthy dances of the peasantry.
Victoria Botero, a charismatic singer with a gorgeous voice; guitarist Beau Bledsoe; Victor Penniman on viola da gamba; and percussionist Patrick Conway will perform, with the musicians playing period instruments. Violinist Elizabeth Suh Lane will be a guest performer with the group, and Norma Pacheco O’Neil will accentuate the Spanish flavor with castanets.
8 p.m. Friday. St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, 11 E. 40th St. $15-$20. www.ensembleiberica.org.
Musica Sacra is the only arts group in Kansas City that I’m aware of that uses St. Francis Xavier church as a venue. That’s a pity because the modernist, fish-shaped church across the street from Rockhurst University offers some of the warmest acoustics in town. Timothy McDonald, the artistic director of Musica Sacra and professor of music at Rockhurst, certainly appreciates its qualities, which are perfect for the rich, full-bodied sound of his choir and orchestra.
Musica Sacra will present its fall concert Sunday at St. Francis Xavier, so you can hear for yourself the church’s sound.
The concert will open with two works sung from the choir loft, “Lord, for Thy Tender Mercy’s Sake” by 16th century English composer Richard Farrant and “O Vos Omnes” by Spanish Renaissance composer Tomas Luis de Victoria.
“We love performing in the loft because it really exploits the wonderful acoustics of the church,” McDonald said. The rest of the concert will feature music by George Frideric Handel and Franz Schubert, which will be performed at the front of the church.
“We’re singing ‘Let God Arise,’ the last of Handel’s 11 Chandos anthems,” McDonald said. “It was written around 1718, when Handel was a composer-in-residence to James Brydges, the first Duke of Chandos. The work contains beautiful, dance-like choruses and ends with an ‘Alleluia’ that looks forward to the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ from ‘Messiah.’”
The major work on the program is the Mass in C, written by Schubert when he was 18 years old.
The concert is at 7 p.m., but it’s worth arriving early for McDonald’s program notes at 6:15 p.m. McDonald has years of experience teaching classical music appreciation. He has a knack for sharing interesting historical trivia while deepening an audience’s appreciation of music.
7 p.m. Sunday. St. Francis Xavier Church, 1001 E. 52nd St. $10-$18. Tickets available at 816-235-6222 or at the door.