A ‘Nativity’ with soul
By Dagney C. Ernest
Dec 12, 2013
- (Artwork by: Aaron Robinson /Lisa Wheeler)

** To assure the safety of all, Down East Singers has postponed its 2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 15, performance of “Black Nativity — In Concert: A Gospel Celebration” at the Camden Opera House. The concert has been rescheduled for 7 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 22, at the Camden Opera House. All tickets sold for the Dec. 15 performance will be honored Dec. 22. Tickets for the Dec. 22 performance are available from chorus members, through the Website and at Thomaston Cafe, Thomaston; The Grasshopper Shop, Rockland; The Owl & Turtle Bookshop, Camden; and Left Bank Books, Belfast. Info: (207) 619-0413; www.downeastsingers.org. **


Down East Singers have become known for presenting music in other languages. The last two years’ Christmas-season concerts were in Russian and French, respectively, and there is the perennial offshoot Rachmaninoff Choir singing in Old Church Slavonic.

This year’s Christmas concert offers another language, not in words but in genre and tradition: “Black Nativity — In Concert: A Gospel Celebration” will be presented Thursday, Dec. 12, at 7:30 p.m. at Newcastle’s St. Patrick's Church; and Sunday, Dec. 15, at 2 p.m. at the downtown Camden Opera House.

Maine is the whitest state in the country. The Midcoast chorus’ membership reflects that reality, and its repertoire has been firmly classical, with a few mindfully chosen aberrations. The original “Black Nativity,” which combined traditional gospel hymns with the words of African-American poet and playwright Langston Hughes, was a one-time concert series presented at New York City’s 41st Street Theater in 1961. Its 50 concerts were performed by six gospel singers, accompanied on piano and the classic Hammond B-3 organ. Anthony Antolini, a student at the time, attended one of the concerts and bought the LP.

These days, Antolini lives in Cushing, is a faculty member at Bowdoin College and has been the artistic director and conductor of Down East Singers since 1991. Some years ago, when Medomak Valley High School alumnus Aaron Robinson was working for Bowdoin’s music department, Antolini pulled out his old LP when he learned of Robinson’s interest in ragtime, blues, gospel and African-American spirituals.

That interest goes back to high school days for Robinson, who grew up immersed in the cappella, four-part harmony hymns of the Church of the Nazarene. In his book “Does God Sing? A Musical Journey,” published a year ago by Tate Publishing, he credits directing “Big River,” a musical telling of “Huckleberry Finn,” for the former Midcoast Children’s Theatre at the Waldo Theatre with introducing him to the music he has since become best known for.

In 2004, using the recording as a guide, Robinson arranged and conducted “Black Nativity — A Gospel Celebration” at Portland’s Immanuel Baptist Church. It was filmed and shown on public television and produced a popular Christmas gospel album. The Down East Singers’ concert marks the first time “Black Nativity” will be performed from Robinson’s score, recently published by Dramatic Publishing in New York.

The concert program is filled out by additional selections from the genre and will be performed, fully memorized, by the 60-member Singers and six soloists: mother and daughter Debbie Brady and Annie Brady; Kristen Burkholder; Richard Fiske; David Myers Jr.; and Valerie Wells. The audience will be welcome to participate, especially during the concluding “Go, Tell it on the Mountain”; and narrator Dean Jorgenson will weave scripture and Hughes' poetry among the songs, which also include a rollicking “Joy to the World” and “Oh Happy Day.”

In addition to the singing — and hand-clapping and foot-stomping — Jennifer McIvor will play the Camden Opera House's newly restored 1927 Steinway grand piano; and Sean Fleming will improvise up a storm on a vintage A-100 Hammond organ.

The organ was an issue at first; Robinson insisted on the real thing, not an electronic keyboard’s electric organ setting, and Antolini said he was at a loss. Then Robinson spotted a Hammond A-100 — essentially the home version of the iconic instrument — on eBay. Delmar Small, budget manager for Bowdoin’s music department, had enough in a fund for musical instrument acquisition to make a bid on it.

“The bid was accepted and Delmar went right up there in a rental van and picked it up that very day! So we have our very own Hammond organ now,” said Antolini, explaining that the difference between the A-100 and the B-3 is that the A-100 has speakers contained inside the instrument while the B-3 requires separate Lesley speakers.

The technical details are not daunting to Fleming, who grew up in Rockland.

“It turns out that his grandfather was the Hammond organ salesman for this area when Sean was growing up, so he knows all about how to play them and how to deal with their odd pull bars that manipulate the sound,” said Antolini.

It will be quite a sound.

“That organ! It’s like the sixth soloist … I don’t think the choir realizes how loud that’s going to be. It will galvanize us to put up or shut up,” said Burkholder, who sings several solos and is in the quartet of “The Crossing” from “Big River,” which Robinson has added to the mix.

Burkholder, who lives in Northport and runs Belfast Maine Therapeutic Massage and Reiki, is perhaps best known locally for her singing of Great American Songbook tunes as half of the Tango duet. Like Robinson, she grew up singing a cappella four-part hymns, albeit as a part of the Mennonite tradition. She is proud of her musical heritage, in which she learned how to harmonize and sight read. And she was singing as a performer at a young age, thanks to a family act that toured Bucks County, Pa., and even made a few appearances in Philadelphia.

“Singing spiritual music is a genetic thing for me, from both sides of the family,” she said.

Although its style differs greatly from what the family was singing, gospel music was something Burkholder was introduced to early on. Whenever there was an opportunity to hear a gospel performer or group, her mother made sure the children took advantage of it.

“My mother would say, this is it — this is the real deal,” Burkholder recalled.

The obvious link is the spiritual connection. Burkholder said her mother counseled them to always think about what they are singing, saying the audience will pick it up “so let them hear it!” The content of the songs she is singing in “Black Nativity — A Gospel Celebration” has huge meaning for her, but she thinks connections can be made for people of different beliefs, as well.

“You can be an atheist and sing this music, but you have to find yourself in these songs to convey the feeling behind them,” she said.

The soloists also have to find notes they may never have attempted before, and that can be intimidating. Well-known local theater educator Valerie Wells expressed some nervousness about “what I have to put out there” and Burkholder agrees.

“Some of the notes go right into the stratosphere due to the extreme exuberance of the music. It’s pretty challenging,” Burkholder said.

But as the concerts near, soloists and Singers are letting the music take them where they need to go. While they will face the audience in performance, the soloists have rehearsed all fall facing the chorus, which Burkholder said has been wonderful.

“I’ve been watching the choir unfold like a flower; it’s good to see them feeling uplifted,” she said.

The audience can expect to feel uplifted too, perhaps even out of their seats at times, and that’s OK — it’s part of the tradition that may be rare on the Midcoast but can speak to all.

“Gospel is all about heart and soul,” Burkholder said.

Admission to the St. Patrick's Church performance is by suggested donation of $20; no tickets are necessary. Tickets for the Camden Opera House performance are $20, free to students younger than 19, and are available from chorus members, online at downeastsingers.org and at Thomaston Cafe; Grasshopper Shop, Rockland; Owl and Turtle Bookshop, Camden; and Left Bank Books, Belfast. Any remaining tickets will be available at the box office beginning at 1 p.m. the day of the performance. For more information, call 619-0413.

Kristen Burkholder
Valerie Wells
David Myers Jr.
Debbie Brady and Annie Brady
Richard Fiske
(Courtesy of: Delmar Small) The mighty Hammond A-100 will be featured in Down East Singers’ “Black Nativity — In Concert: A Gospel Celebration.”