Review: Countertenor Reginald Mobley Awes with Music of American Black Composers

Countertenor Reginald Mobley Awes with Music of American Black Composers

Philippa Kiraly • February 14, 2018 - The Sunbreak

St. Mark’s Cathedral was full Sunday afternoon to hear the young, remarkable countertenor Reginald Mobley, presented by Pacific MusicWorks. The performance, titled “Every Time I Feel the Spirit,” celebrated black voices in American music over the past 200 years.

Mobley possesses a deep understanding of not only black music but of the baroque countertenor literature — and it took only a few notes for listeners to recognize they were in the presence of a rare vocal talent.

Some may have expected this program to comprise spirituals and gospel songs only, but the composers on the program wrote for the general public of the time and their music is interchangeable in style with that of many other composers of their days. Many were prolific composers in many genres and popular writers of art song.

Although the program said American black composers, the first on the program, Ignacio Sancho, was born on a slave ship and spent his life in England, a literate man and a prolific writer not only of music.  A younger contemporary of England’s composer Thomas Arne, his music has the same charm and delightful ditties which characterize the other’s work.

These were the earliest works. All the rest came from a century later and more, and included spirituals known by many such as “My Lord, What a Morning,” arranged by J. Rosamond Johnson. In this one and several others, Mobley’s connection to the words, music and their origins gave such a heartfelt feel to them that they brought emotions to the fore in listening. (Johnson and his brother James authored the famous “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”)

The set of songs by Florence B. Price, a remarkable musician admitted to the New England Conservatory of Music aged 14 in 1901, were perhaps the most sophisticated on the program, no doubt addressed to the audience she was writing for. The deeply moving “Song to the Dark Virgin,” and the mischievous “Tobacco” were opposite extremes of her oeuvre performed here, but she was also the first black woman to have a symphonic work performed by an American orchestra.

There were songs and instrumental music by James Bland, Justin Holland, Stephen Foster, and Scott Joplin, as well as spirituals like “Were You There?” and “Deep River,” arranged by Moses Hogan, on the program. In every one, Mobley captured the spirit of the music. His voice is effortless. It just flows out of him with a round, pure, easy sound, no edge, beautifully produced, with only occasional light vibrato, lovely phrasing and shaping, never breathy, and seamless from top to bottom of his range which went down to the upper tenor level. Nothing ever seemed forced, his diction is excellent, and he rarely needed to sing a full forte.

Accompanying him were Pacific MusicWorks members and guests: Tekla Cunningham and Brandon Vance, violins; Stephen Stubbs, guitar; Tom Berghan, banjo, and Henry Lebedinsky, harpsichord and piano. Cunningham played the washboard as well, with a brush, and Berghan the ass’s jawbone (teeth included) with both ends of a mallet.

Mobley returns here to the Whidbey island Music Festival at the end of July, to sing Bach cantatas, after spending several months singing the same in Europe with John Eliot Gardiner.