Frank, Ethlouise, and I heard Kathleen Battle in a concert entitled *Underground Railroad: A Spiritual Journey* at the Met on 11/13. Her primary pianist was Joel A. Martin and the chorus was the Voices of the Underground Railroad, conducted by Stephanie Fisher and Rachel Blackburn. Jussie Smollett did readings between songs (most often from the writings of Frederick Douglass) and Cicely Tyson did a dramatic reading of a speech given by Sojourner Truth. Wynton Marsalis played on one song, Riza Printup played harp on two songs, and Cyrus Chestnut played piano on two songs. I've listed the entire program at the bottom of this post.
Miss Battle made her Met debut in 1977 and became a beloved and important singer on the roster, always praised for the beauty and purity of her voice, the elegance of her musicianship, and her charming and drop-dead gorgeous presence onstage. Sadly, her extreme diva behavior in rehearsal led to her being fired from the Met in 1994. At the time of her firing she had no other engagements at any other opera house, which means that other companies had stopped hiring her (or bought her out of her contracts) for four or five years. She continued her career, doing recordings and concerts and singing a little wordless warbling in *Fantasia 2000.* It was big news that she was returning to the Met. I had never heard her in person, so I had to be there!
It was incredible and it was a mess. I'll discuss them separately.
Miss Battle sounds great. Her voice isn't as creamy as it once was, but her singing is secure and lovely and she knows what to do. Her sound has always been a little monochromatic, but she gives the illusion of her voice being more colorful than it actually is, and that's artistry of the highest order! She clearly has a deep love and understanding of this music, and she communicated that to her adoring audience.
Miss Battle looks great. It might sound shallow to point that out, but it was always a big part of her package. She's very short and very pretty. She wore a burgundy velvet gown and a gold silk organza wrap. Ethlouise said this the next day: "She's always beautifully turned out. She knows how to work a wrap. And her gowns! With the trains on her gowns, they're still onstage ten minutes after she's left."
Both of the pianists were great. The primary pianist, Joel A. Martin, was elegant and strong and showed off some witty and impressive jazz chops here and there. The other pianist, Cyrus Chestnut, was more flashy, he was a nice contrast to the more restrained and well-mannered style of Martin.
Wynton Marsalis is the greatest trumpet player in the world. That's been the case for what, thirty years now? He made a sly entrance - - we heard him and saw his trumpet peeking onstage, and then he arrived, playing all the while, and the audience went berserk. He sat behind Chestnut when he played one of his flashy piano solos, and Marsalis took his bowler hat (which he'd been using as a mute) and fanned him with it, as if to say, "Man, you are SMOKIN!" That was darling.
I didn't know Jussie Smollett, but he did a great job with his readings. I hear that he's on *Empire,* maybe I need to check that show out. Now Cicely Tyson, HER I know! I said the audience had gone berserk when Marsalis came onstage - - well they were coo coo for Cocoa Puffs when Miss Tyson came on. Standing ovation. She was strong and full of passion in her performance as Sojourner Truth. I couldn't quite understand all of her words, but I'll forgive her that. Especially when she looked so amazing in her purple silk gown.
The CHOIR. The choir was the best thing up there, no offense to Miss Battle (though I'm sure she would take offense). Beautiful, vibrant, clear sound, and a bone-deep sense of the style. There were many solo opportunities for the singers in the group, and they took their moments and made the most of them. All of them special, some of them fantastic. They had the most thrilling moment of the performance: they got to the end of a rousing number and six or eight of the singers started going off, each of them doing their own fabulous melismatic invention, all of them piled on top of each other. It was thrilling. I asked Ethlouise about this the next day, and she told me that kind of thing happens every Sunday in some churches.
The stated start time was 4:00 PM. I thought, knowing Miss Battle, we'd probably be starting closer to 4:10 or 4:15. A disembodied voice spoke to us over the loudspeaker at 4:23, telling us that photography and recordings are forbidden, and they would be starting the performance shortly. The performance started at 4:37. Four Thirty SEVEN.
The chorus came onstage to big applause, ditto the pianist. A long pause and then Miss Battle walked on. Hooting and hollering and great carrying on.
She sang two songs and then walked over to a little table onstage and took a drink of water. Frank noticed that some audience members called out some crankiness about that (I didn't hear that), so for the rest of the first half, after every song, she walked on and offstage, presumably to have her drink of water. And of course we had to applaud her every time she went on and off, and she had to acknowledge the applause and rearrange her silk organza wrap. That got real old real fast.
I noticed an interesting phenomenon, a fascinating and somewhat puzzling part of Miss Battle's mechanism. I'll demonstrate with the end of "Swing low, sweet chariot": she sang the final phrase - - "Carry me...", and the left arm floated up. Pause. A flick of the wrist and, "...home!" - - the A-flat came out, shimmering and sweet. I asked Ethlouise about this the next day and she said that every high note came out of her left hand. If Forbidden Broadway were to do a parody of this concert, the song would be "She's got the high notes in her hand / She's got the pianissimo high notes in her hand..."
Miss Battle has a reputation for being bossy, and we saw that. She was conducting the pianist, conducting the choir, conducting the conductor. I had never seen anything like it.
The intermission started at nearly 6:00 PM. It was at least a half hour long. Thankfully her return to the stage didn't take as long as her first entrance. One of the highlights of the second half was "Balm in Gildead": she brought seven women out of the choir and they all stood behind the piano and sang it together (Miss Battle in the middle of course).
There were five encores. Everyone stood and seemingly most of the audience sang along with "Lift every voice and sing." I know that song but don't know the words - - I wish I had known that they were printed in the program, I would have sung along!
I was thrilled but also a little worn out, but then Miss Battle made it all better when she sang "Were you there." She sang it a cappella. She sang the three verses I knew: Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Were you there when they nailed him to the tree? Were you there when they laid him in the tomb? She finished with a fourth verse I hadn't heard before: Were you there when they rolled the stone away? And shocker of shockers, she did a key change at the start of that verse. A key change in an a cappella piece. A hush and a gasp over the crowd, not just for the dramatic genius of that key change, but for the dazzling, quiet artistry of her performance. It was unforgetable.
One final encore and a whole lot of bows. Miss Battle walked over to a microphone onstage and everyone was silent, thinking she was going to say something. She said, brusquely, her back to the audience, "That's all for now." And she bowed some more and left the stage. I asked Ethlouise the next day: isn't the tradition that the singer takes the flowers off the piano when she walks offstage the last time, and that's the indication and she is done? That is the tradition. Miss Battle's handling of her exit was peculiar and perplexing.
It took a while for the crowd to leave the theater, and we were sitting in the nosebleed seats, where I always sit (Ethlouise hadn't been up there in years). I stepped out onto the plaza at 7:53. I think Miss Battle had an idea that this would be her last performance on that stage.
"Lord, how come me here?"
"Go down, Moses"
"Roll, Jordan, roll"
"City called Heaven"
"I've been 'buked and I've been scorned"
"Give me Jesus"
"Wade in the water"
"Mary had a baby" / "Swing low, sweet chariot"
"Ride up in the chariot"
"In bright mansions above"
"I don't feel no-ways tired" / "Farther along"
"Glory, glory hallelujah" / "Come out of the wilderness"
"Fix me, Jesus"
"Climbin' high mountains"
"Balm in Gilead"
"Let us break bread together"
"Ain't gonna let nobody turn me roun' "
"Lift every voice"
"People get ready"
"Were you there"
"Over my head"
She's got the high notes in her hand
She's got the pianissimo high notes in her hand
She's got the high notes in her left hand
She's got the high notes in her hand
She's got the singers in the choir in her hand
She's got pianists and a harpist in her hand
She's got Wynton Marsalis in her hand
She's got all them in her hand
She's got the choir conductor in her hand
She's got the tempo fluctuations in her hand
She's got repeats and codas in her hand
You'd better watch her hand
She's got Jussie Smollett in her hand
She's got Cicely...
[spoken] May I have your attention please. Cicely Tyson is honored to be giving voice to Sojourner Truth in this afternoon's performance, but she would like to make it clear that while she is sharing the stage with Miss Battle, the stage itself does not belong to either of them...
She's got the audience in her hand
She's got Peter Gelb right in her hand
For one night only they're in her hand
She's got the whole world in her hand