On Friday evening, legendary soprano Kathleen Battle brought her inspirational program of spirituals, “Kathleen Battle: Underground Railroad — A Spiritual Journey,” to Symphony Hall, performing it before a diverse capacity audience for the one-night-only special event that celebrated the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Battle was joined in the concert by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, led by guest conductor Chelsea Tipton II, and the combined Spelman and Morehouse College Glee Clubs, along with a pair of distinguished guest narrators: former mayor Shirley Franklin and the Rev. Mashod Evans Sr., senior pastor of Bethel AME Church in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The concert also marked the 25th anniversary of the ASO’s Martin Luther King, Jr. tribute concerts, first presented in Symphony Hall on January 18, 1993.
Battle’s “Underground Railroad” program has played an important role in her concerts in recent years. She had already been presenting and performing it for several years when she made her historic return to the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House in 2016 after a 22-year absence. That sold-out concert was Battle’s “recital version” of the program, with piano and chorus, plus guest artists that included trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and actress Cicely Tyson. In contrast, this past Friday’s concert utilized full-blown orchestral arrangements.
In reality, no two are alike, as “Underground Railroad” is a flexible program which Battle tailors to each city and venue. What remains consistent is the underlying theme and structure — a panoply of spirituals and traditional African American songs, threaded together with relevant narrations from the writings of abolitionists and civil rights giants such as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth and King. Battle has described it as a program that “brings together my musical background and my cultural heritage.” It must be said that throughout her operatic career she has never left her musical and cultural roots behind.
In tribute to that overall heritage, the show connects the singing of spirituals to the Underground Railroad, the secret network of abolitionists, both black and white, who at great risk helped thousands of slaves escape to freedom between the 1830s and the beginning of the Civil War. Much of what underscores the concert’s theme is that many spirituals carry multiple levels of meaning, if one is attentive to reading between the literal lines. In that sense, they were used as forms of communication among slaves, including the secret workings of the Underground Railroad — instructions revealed in musical code.
Friday night’s program included 20 such spirituals that reflected that theme, with most arrangements featuring surprisingly modern, jazz-influenced harmonies and attractively lush orchestrations by composer-arrangers such as Hale Smith, Robert Sadin and Margaret Bonds, plus unaccompanied choral settings from arrangers such as Sylvia Olden Lee, Jacqueline Hairston and Hall Johnson. With the number of selections, plus the interconnective readings, each was necessarily short by symphonic concert standards, but all were successfully woven together in an overall rhetorical arc.
The show opened with “Lord, How Come Me Here?” and included selections such as “Go Down, Moses,” “I’ll Never Turn Back No More,” “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “I Don’t Feel No Ways Tired,” “Fix Me Jesus,” “Balm in Gilead,” “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Roun’,” and concluding with an atypically silky smooth “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.”
What is most remarkable about the performance is that Battle, who turns 70 years old in August, has retained well the buoyant, lithe and loveliness of voice for which she drew acclaim at the peak of her operatic career. It is not a large voice — it never has been — but with its liquid, signature sound and her expressive capability, Battle still commands a compelling emotional connection with the audience.
Then there was the presence of two of Atlanta’s musical treasures, the combined glee clubs from Spelman and Morehouse, which contributed splendidly to the concert’s overall success, backing up Battle in many of the songs, with or without the orchestra, and getting a couple of chances to shine on their own without her in the second half, which also gave each of their respective directors — Kevin Johnson (“In Bright Mansions”) and David Morrow (“Climbin’ High Mountains”) — moments of deserved spotlight time on the podium, while Tipton led the overwhelming majority of the program, managing well the forces that successfully backed up Battle without overwhelming her.
At the end, after lengthy ovations and some audience having already left the hall, Battle came back onstage to perform a pair of encores: “Calvary,” with ASO principal harpist Elisabeth Remy Johnson, and then a kind of workshopped arrangement of “Lil’ David Play On Your Harp” with the glee clubs, imparting a more spontaneous, less formal feeling to the concert’s final music.