Wednesday, February 19, 2014

My Lord, What a Morning

Ladies and germs, but mostly my friend Stephen, I offer proof that I can put myself together quickly when I need to.

Stephen has never let me forget the time he called from a new bar wanting me to join him and I said it would be an hour and a half because I had to get ready.

This morning I woke up forty minutes before I wanted to be at the VMFA for the latest in their Conversations series.

For the record, I dropped into my seat at 10:58, full dressed and fed. The handsome black man next to me helped remove my jacket as we talked about the size of the crowd that had come out for a musical morning.

What I hadn't wanted to miss was a program about singer Marian Anderson with a conversation between the museum's American art curator Sylvia Yount and singer/educator Lisa Edwards-Burrs.

With a standing room only crowd, the conversation began with a 1939 film clip of Anderson singing "My Country Tis of Thee" on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday before 75,000 people.

We were reminded that the significance was that the Daughters of the American Revolution had refused to let her sing at D.A.R. Constitution Hall because she was black.

Her contralto voice soared until I'm certain it wasn't just me who had chills listening to her.

After a photo-montage clip set to her singing "My Lord, What a Morning," the audience was pretty much in a puddle.

Today's program had been in the works since VMFA had acquired Beauford Delaney's sublime and sunny portrait of Anderson a little over a year ago.

February was her birthday month so it finally came together to talk about the woman described as the "voice of the American soul" and the one who'd sparked the beginning of the nascent Civil Rights movement.

On display was one of the gowns Anderson wore on her farewell tour in 1965, borrowed from our own Black History Museum right down the street from me in Jackson Ward.

Yount and Burrs talked about Anderson's place as a singer and cultural icon before the large group moved downstairs to see the tactile painting, it's thick yellow paint a true celebration of the art of painting.

Gathered in the American gallery, Burrs stood next to the portrait of Anderson and sang without accompaniment.

She said she'd planned to sing "My Lord, What a Morning," but since we'd just heard it done perfectly, she wasn't going to.

I could understand what she meant.

She prefaced doing her favorite Anderson song, "Crucifixion," by saying that she wasn't a contralto, so we had to allow for that.

No allowances were necessary for the moving interpretation she delivered.

Then she did her soprano Anderson imitation with "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," and the room seemed stunned when she finished.

Watching Burrs sing while looking at the larger-than-life painting was transcendent and I know I forgot about everyone else in the room as I listened and looked.

Saying that she didn't know if Anderson had done this song, she began "This Little Light of Mine" for her final piece.

She explained that because she was singing a capella, she'd chosen spirituals, but she wanted to make sure we knew that Anderson sang a lot of classical music during her career.

And while I'd have happily listened to anything Burrs sang next to that painting, there was something fitting about hearing spirituals while looking at a woman who faced many struggles in this country because of her race.

Our time was up and the gallery was about to be overrun by 60 school children, but the crowd clamored for one more and Burrs did "Deep River," finishing to applause that echoed through the high-ceilinged gallery.

No hard feelings, Stephen, but some things are worth getting out of the house for at warp speed.

Paying homage to Marian Anderson with music and art is one of them.

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