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Let the Spirit Move You!

Saint Paul Sunday Welcomes
New Orleans' Moses Hogan Chorale and Countertenor Derek Lee Ragin

by Vaughn Ormseth


The Spirit, says the Bible, moves in mysterious ways.

Listeners to public radio's chamber series Saint Paul Sunday will hear soul-stirring proof of this ancient wisdom this Sunday. That day, the New Orleans-based Moses Hogan Chorale, an ensemble specializing in African-American spirituals, joins forces with the internationally acclaimed countertenor Derek Lee Ragin. The countertenor voice -- a rare male voice that sings in high alto and soprano ranges -- is seldom-heard beyond a narrow early repertoire. Ragin will explore some wonderful new musical territory.

If a classical black-Southern choir and a countertenor seem an unlikely alliance at first, hold on. Audiences have thrilled to the partnership's concerts in both Europe and the United States, and critics have praised it for its deft integration of musical styles. On Saint Paul Sunday, Ragin and the Chorale will perform traditional spirituals in their purest, usually unaccompanied forms, a repertoire that embraces some of this country's earliest and most affecting musical roots.

Spirituals' American Niche

Hogan, a pianist, conductor and arranger based in New Orleans, draws a sharp distinction between spirituals and later musical outgrowths such as gospel. Original spirituals, he says "contained a lyrical quality and dealt with a variety of emotions. The songs were termed spirituals because of the relationship between the type of song and the Holy Spirit." Having evolved within the inhuman conditions of slavery, spirituals "were consistently employed in the quest for freedom," but also, Hogan adds, "in religious services, and to educate, gossip, reprimand, signal, or to aid in story-telling. They functioned as a means of educating slaves about their own affairs."

Later forms of African-American music -- gospel, blues, and jazz among them -- all find some source in spirituals, but have not preserved the restrained, nearly hushed sense of controlled excitement listeners will discover in Hogan's arrangements and conducting. Flights of emotion enliven most of the works, but always in counter-balance to an equally palpable feeling of reverence.

Listeners to Saint Paul Sunday's September 14th broadcast will hear an historically varied program of works by both familiar and less well-known composers and arrangers -- from Undine Smith Moore's "I Just Come from the Fountain" to Harry Burgleigh's "Steal Away " and "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen"-- along with several more arrangements by Hogan himself, including "Let Us Break Bread Together," "Old Time Religion," Ev'ry Time I Feel de Spirit," and "God's Gonna Set the World on Fire," and others.

Friends at Oberlin

The unique collaboration has its own origins in a college friendship. At the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in 1975, two young piano majors--Hogan of New Orleans and Ragin of Newark, New Jersey--met as classmates. Ragin remembers Hogan as "the best" among their Oberlin piano peers, a distinction that Hogan has broadened in the subsequent two decades to also include choral conducting, arranging, and teaching.

Ragin left piano behind after college when he discovered his extraordinary vocal gifts and has since distinguished himself as one of the world's finest countertenors, a rare honor in the already rarefied world of classical singing. Listeners who saw the film "Farinelli," which traced the career of the great 18th-century Italian singer, may already be familiar with Ragin without knowing so; for the film's soundtrack, Ragin's voice was electronically melded, or "morphed," with a high female soprano voice to approximate the title character's castrato range.

It was Ragin who initially approached Hogan about the prospect of working together on a recording of spirituals. "I was asked by a record company what I would like to record besides yet another Handel opera disc. I told them that I really wanted to do some Negro spirituals. I knew that Moses had a passion for spirituals so I got back in touch." Hogan adds, a little mischieviously, "When Derek came to me with the project, I said 'yes' right away. And then I said, 'You know, I have this choir too. What do you think?' "

It was a match made in heaven, almost literally. Ragin's unearthly, warm-toned voice fit the choral melodies and divinely themed texts of the early spiritual form surprisingly well. This unity of sound and sense in combination with Hogan's astute understanding of the music resulted in something truly original. "I've always loved both traditional spiritual and classical music. My first exposure to both was in the church," Hogan says. "This collaboration is really a mixture of each of our musical training up to this point."

Moore: I Just Come from the Fountain
Arr. Johnson: I've Been 'Buked
Arr. Hogan: Lord I want to be a Christian
Purcell: Music for a While
Arr. Hogan: Let Us Break Bread Together
Arr. Hogan: God's Gonna Set This World on Fire
Carter: Come Here Jesus, If You Please
Arr. Hogan: My God is So High
Arr. Hogan: Old Time Religion
Arr. Burleigh: Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen
Arr. Hogan: I Don't Feel No Ways Tired
Arr. Hogan: I Want Jesus to Walk with Me
Williams: Ain't That Good News
Arr. Jones: My Soul's Been Anchored in the Lord
Arr. Burleigh: Steal Away
Arr. Hogan: Ev'ry time I Feel de Spirit