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Kathleen Battle: Songs that Move

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On May 29, multiple Grammy-winner Kathleen Battle returns to Roy Thomson Hall for the first time since 2008. Her performance will feature the spirituals that have appeared in her repertoire for years, garnering wide acclaim, but which take on special meaning when brought together under the banner of Underground Railroad: A Spiritual Journey, a special afternoon of song featuring acclaimed pianist Joel A. Martin and Toronto’s own national treasure, the Nathaniel Dett Chorale.

That Battle returns to the Hall is cause for celebration. But that she does so with a program of the pieces that have proven some of her most popular and affecting makes this upcoming performances an even more exciting prospect. In her last appearance in Toronto, one reviewer called the two spirituals with which she wrapped up the performance “the best singing of the afternoon… She treated them tenderly, naturally and freely.” The audience, he added, was deeply moved “and demonstrated as much in the heartfelt liveliness of its applause.”

Much in the way that spirituals themselves – like the blues music they inspired – offer a celebration amidst difficult conditions, so, too, does Underground Railroad provide for both excitement and contemplation. The performance covers important and wide-ranging ground, telling a story not simply of a time in the past but of our present. Because the story in question – of American slavery and the efforts of so many to free themselves from it – is one that resonates, and continues to unfold, to this day: Refugees, racism, violence and reconciliation are all issues that continue beyond the end of the proverbial Railroad; the reflection that Underground Railroad inspires, therefore, is a major part of what makes this production important.

Battle’s decision to return to the Roy Thomson Hall stage has less to do with mapping a concert tour than it does with mapping the content of the performance: Like all cities that will host performances of Underground Railroad, Toronto played a part in the story the production tells.

Samuel H Davis Rev. Samuel H Davis, an Underground Railroad station master who used his church as a safe haven for slaves. (Courtesy OBHS)

 

“Between 1840 and 1860, even before the American Civil War, slaves followed the Northern Star on the Underground Railroad to find freedom in Canada,” notes Nikki Clarke, President of the Ontario Black History Society, a partner in this special presentation. “They risked everything for freedom: They left their families with the angst that they may never reunite. They risked their lives as they navigated through secret, dangerous routes and stops led by their conductor. The cargo as the slaves were called, traveled mostly on foot through untamed wilderness and extreme weather conditions. They paid the price to pave the way for over 30,000 slaves’ emancipation: exodus to the promised land.”

But while our contribution to the eponymous escape route is noteworthy, we also continue to struggle with the issues brought to the fore by Underground Railroad. This performance will provide an important opportunity to address them – and the spirituals that comprise the performance an ideal vehicle.

“Audiences will be taken to passages of the past to grasp the essence of the escaped slaves’ courage and faith,” adds Clarke. “Our mandate to promote, protect and preserve black heritage in Canada is beautifully aligned with this musical adaptation.”

Battle’s own connection to spirituals is deep, as she recently explained to a reporter: “There’s not a spiritual I’ve ever heard that I didn’t want to make my own. I may not have sung them but they live within me.” That makes for an intense experience – for both listeners and singer: “When you’re in one spiritual,” she said, “you inhabit that space. If you string a lot of them together, it can weigh heavy on your heart.”

That connection has clearly been inspiring Battle, with enthusiastic receptions greeting recent Underground Railroad performances. In Richmond, Virginia, one encore wasn’t enough for the theatre: “the audience called Battle back three more times, and she repaid them in purest gold, the Kathleen Battle voice, a capella.”

On May 29, that voice, we’re sure, will inspire audiences to more than an intense appreciation of the timeless songs on the programme. That voice will inspire important and valuable reflection upon the history and trajectory that these songs evoke.

 

Jazz Stories at Massey Hall

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Here at Soundboard, it’s difficult to drop the word ‘jazz’ without referring to a particular night in Massey Hall history: May 15, 1953, the night of what’s come to be known – and, occasionally, the name under which the recording of that night has been released – The Greatest Jazz Concert Ever.
The Quintet, as the band became known, comprised five of jazz’s top talents, gathered for the first and only time: Charlie “Bird” Parker (sax), Dizzy Gillespie (trumpet), Bud Powell (piano), Charles Mingus (bass) and Max Roach (drums). This legendary concert has, in the decades since, done much to remind us that you can’t spell “history” without “story.”

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Blues rock titan George Thorogood returns to Massey Hall on Friday, May 6. The “Bad to the Bone” singer and his band, The Destroyers, continue to tour and record, proving they’ve lost none of the drive that propelled them from their very first gig in 1973.

Enter to win a pair of tickets to see George Thorogood & The Destroyers at Massey Hall with special guest JW Jones, and a prize package which includes a pre-concert meet-and-greet with the legendary rocker himself.

The winner will be contacted Thursday, May 5th via email and must be in attendance at the event to collect their prize.

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Abida Parveen: Transcending Boundaries

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 Photo: Mobeen Ansari

A pioneering artist in a form long dominated by males, Abida Parveen is one of the most prominent and influential Sufi musicians of our time. She has transformed the tradition of Sufi singing and inspired a folk, and feminist, renaissance, influencing countless musicians – from Pakistani rockers to Björk (who remixed one of her tunes). But though she is a part of a very specific tradition, her work transcends boundaries, linking her to great artists across the musical landscape.

Which is why the specifics shouldn’t get in the way of digging in to her music. Like the best art, it’s not about language, or what, exactly, the definition of “Sufi music” might be. As the BBC put it in an album review, “it’s clear that the best devotional music (whether Gregorian Chant, John Coltrane or Le Mystere de Voix Bulgares) has a power to communicate across racial and denominational divides.”And Parveen’s performances are nothing if not a physical and musical demonstration of that power: Both performer (who’s admitted to hallucinating while in the thralls of the music) and audiences (often sent into literal swaying rapture) become transported.

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The SFJAZZ Collective: Where Pop Meets Jazz

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Words like “cool” and “smooth” have come to be associated with West Coast Jazz, thanks to the late-40s and early-50s surge in popularity of a particularly Californian version. But the music of the SFJAZZ Collective, who perform at Massey Hall on Saturday, April 23, is of a different sort than that which came to be defined by folks like Stan Getz and Chet Baker.

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