Take the things that divide Detroit – race, poverty, repression, mistrust, anger – and set them to music. Those are the songs that the Brazeal Dennard Chorale embraces and uses to empower its listeners.
These songs, known as Negro Spirituals, are what drew Don Robinson to the Chorale three decades ago. Robinson, a 80-year-old lifelong Detroit resident, was then a fire inspector, walking the halls of Northwestern High School when he heard these “wonderful harmonies” comes from a classroom there.
It was coming from the classroom of Brazeal Dennard, who founded the Chorale in 1972. Dennard made it his mission to save this musical genre – a style of music that some would have suffocated and buried along with the horrors that are slavery in the United States. Rather than focus on its sins, Dennard and his soon-to-be friend and collaborator Robinson saw a beautiful pain, an honest history, poetry that defied and defined the human condition.
Robinson, who serves as executive director of the Chorale named after his great mentor, once sang along during performances, adding his resonating baritone to the mix. These days, he is content to watch from the sidelines, admiring the work, the words, the harmonies and the education these spirituals and other words African-American composers have created.
He will be in the audience April 13 for the Brazeal Dennard Chorale‘s third annual Legacy Concert at Orchestra Hall. The performance will honor the musical legacy of African Americans , Robinson said, and show the bright future these songs have in every life, regardless of race, color or creed.
As always, it feels fitting that we learn about the Brazeal Dennard Chorale this week – the week that we remember the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. It is the start to another bright time in Detroit – we have the start to our beloved Tigers baseball season. It is a moment when bright skies, momentous changes and poetry in all kinds should be revered.
A little more about the award-winning Brazeal Dennard Chorale and its Legacy Concert. The night will include performances by tenor Rodrick Dixon (from Three Mo’ Tenors) and soprano Alfreda Burke. Dixon also is known locally for his well-respected “Too Hot to Handel” performances at the Detroit Opera House. Burke’s stellar voice will come in especially during the key performance of the classic spiritual “Witness.”
All of this will be kept in time by Dr. Augustus Hill, who directed the Chorale’s gold and silver medal performances at the 2012 World Choir Games. These wins came against international teams from across the globe, Robinson said, showing the high level of international interest in the spiritual as a musical form.
Robinson’s wife, Barbara, still sings with the Chorale. Both note that their retirement is eminent, although Robinson will stay on the board of directors. That is one more reason why this Legacy Concert has such a huge part of their hearts – now and well into the future.
In fact, just about everything that has to do with this musical group is dear to the couple. You can feel his devotion to the Chorale, its mission and its members when Robinson describes their performances. One in particular that stands out is “Earthrise,” a work by noted African-American composer, Adolphus Hailstork.
The Chorale performed this piece just a few weeks ago at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s 35th Annual Classical Roots Celebration and concert. Let me set the scene – picture the Chorale, which is mostly composed of African-American singers, standing on one side of the stage. The other side held the Vanguard Voices, a classically trained choir of amateur and trained singers based in Dearborn. As the “Carmina Burana” style music swells, the two groups sing against one another and eventually move together and meld into one mighty group. Epic, indeed.
“I have an abiding love for the Negro spiritual. I see it as a piece of our ancestors. It is a piece of history,” Robinson said. “I understood at an early age what it mean to them – it was how they survived.
“They used the spiritual to transform themselves,” Robinson added. “It was about expression. It really is the only original folk music in the United States. That’s what the slaves gave us. I wanted to be part of the preservation of that genre, especially after Brazeal passed away (in 2010).”
Keeping the music alive – especially for younger generations – is what keeps Robinson going.
“We want to encourage families to bring their young children. Schools cannot give them this music. They need to appreciate it and pass it down,” Robinson said. “They’re going to hear a fantastic concert and hopefully renew their interest in what I think it a very important genre.
“It is the music that kept us alive. It kept the Civil Rights movement alive. It kept our spirits up and kept the workers encouraged. It inspired us. We need to honor it the way it should be honored,” Robinson said.
Tickets for the 4 p.m. performance are $50 (box seats); $30 (general admission); and $20 (balcony); and can be purchased by contacting the Chorale office at 313-331-0378 or 313-823-5278. Tickets also are available through the Detroit Symphony Orchestra Box Office at 313-576-5111. Orchestra Hall is located at 3711 Woodward in Midtown Detroit.