On Sunday, March 27, the Convent Avenue Baptist Church showcased soprano Requithelia Allen and baritone Kenneth Hanson, accompanied by Dr. Gregory H. Hopkins on the piano, in a well-curated concert of music spanning three centuries. This trio manifests a wide swath of cultural experience. The evidence abounds.
Dr. Hopkins is a member of the Howard University voice department. He has three degrees in music and has produced music for huge events on five continents, including the Million Man March, the National Baptist Convention and the NAACP. He is also the long-time Minister of Music at Convent Avenue Baptist.
While a student at Morgan State University, Allen toured with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and has since soloed here and abroad–including at a Wynton Marsalis premiere in the Czech Republic, in Carnegie Hall and at Madison Square Garden.
Hanson, an early pupil of Dorothy Maynor at Harlem School of the Arts, has sung with Harlem Opera Theater and was formerly the stage manager of national tours (Boys Choir of Harlem, Alvin Ailey) and hit musicals on Broadway.
Both Allen and Hanson sing with the Harlem Jubilee Singers, also led by Dr. Hopkins.
The church provided a glowing venue for their art. The gorgeous stained glass windows turned vibrant gold and turquoise in the 4 o’clock sun. Out walked Hanson and Allen to offer “God is Here” in good harmony, followed by two big statements by Hanson: “Honor and arms” from Handel’s “Samson” and “It is Enough” from “Elijah.” Dotted rhythms, dynamics, melismas and fine characterization were well studied and in place.
Another fine moment for Hanson was Georges Bizet’s “Toreador Song”–thanks to the difficult play of stately dotted rhythms against sections of boisterous dancing in the composer’s score. Dr. Hopkins thrilled from the keyboard. All the credit, however, might have gone straight to Hanson because when he hit the final high note, the audience cheered. Anyone categorically bored by classical music has never seen it performed in Harlem.
Allen delivered a soprano of beautiful color and brought her soul–and clear diction–to Robert Schumann’s “Widmung” (“Dedication”).
The art song selections were excellent and showed a depth of knowledge of the repertoire. However, even the most popular of these, Margaret Bonds’ “Minstrel Man” and “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” sounded like new pieces to me in the hands of Dr. Hopkins, with his artfully pedaled tremelo and rubato angst.
We heard a sampling of the Duke Ellington Sacred Concerts. Allen expertly negotiated “My Love” with its sliding registers and tough diction. (As it turns out, “love” is not actually the easiest word to sustain beautifully. Hers was superb.) Hanson came in with a jazzier feel for “Ain’t Nobody Nowhere Nothin’ Without God,” putting to use the aesthetic sophistication his former stage-managing of shows like “The Wiz,” “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” and “Jelly’s Last Jam” would’ve allowed him to witness up close.
For the vocalist seeking a tour de force, try Betty Jackson King’s “Calvary.” For an old-time feel, check out the work of Uzee Brown Jr., whose arrangement of “O Redeemed” had elders nodding.
At the operatic finale, a scene from Verdi’s “Nabucco,” Allen laid into the music with a soaring soprano. She had come out in a stunning, vermillion one-shoulder gown overlaid entirely with silken rosettes. That fiery dress and this moment were kin.
Deacon Mary D. Redd welcomed the congregation with her poetry: “We come because we need to. We come because we want to.” And later, she beseeched us for an offering, declaring, “When people prepare, we should reward. Now if you were at Carnegie Hall, at La Scala or the Philharmonic–!”
We were in Harlem. The audience of 400 gave.
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