I met John Paval at the English-speaking Rotary Club in Stockholm, shortly after its formation in May, 2003. I recently learned he was the artistic director of a week-long musical event in Stockholm at the “English Church”, as it is commonly known, or The Church of St. Peter & St. Sigfrid.
I attended the first concert and was delighted with the offering. I learned that Aaron Copland had made modern arrangements of popular, pre-Civil War American songs, in two books, both presented in this concert (more about this, below).
Equally delightful was the singing and narration offered by Mr. Paval. He is a strong tenor and, with his actor’s voice, narrated clearly and powerfully between the songs about their provenance. Most were Negro slave “minstrel” in origin and accordingly, as John explained, they were originally performed by white singers in “blackface”. His soulful words regarding these times before the emancipation of the slaves, were moving, especially in the venue of a church.
Old American Songs are two sets of songs arranged by Aaron Copland in 1950 and 1952 respectively. Originally scored for voice and piano, they were reworked for baritone (or mezzo-soprano) and orchestra. In that John is a tenor, he sang from the original version.
Set 1 was first performed by Peter Pears (tenor) and British composer Benjamin Britten (piano) in 1950 at Aldeburgh, in Suffolk, East Anglia, England. The version of Set 1 for baritone and orchestra was premiered in 1955 by William Warfield and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, conducted by Alfred Wallenstein. (The links under the following song titles go to recordings on YouTube).
Set 2 was first performed in 1958 by William Warfield and Aaron Copland (piano) in Ipswich, Massachusetts, and later, in its orchestral form, by Grace Bumbry (mezzo-soprano) and the Ojai Festival Orchestra, conducted by the composer, in Ojai, California. [Note: I lived in Ojai for three years].
I also attended the fifth concert, on Friday. Consider the setting: the music offered was ”American gospel” in origin, also known as Negro Spirituals; the venue was, as with all the concerts in this series, Stockholm’s “English Church”; the instrumentalists were Swedes, and the vocalists from America. It was wonderful.
(Apologies for a shaky hand, extending a camera into the aisle, making a wobbly picture)
As with the Monday concert, the program was in two parts: in Part 1 we heard selections from Duke Eliington’s “Sacred Concerts”. Part 2 offered “modern and traditional American spiritual music”.
John Paval was not able to be at this concert, having responsibilities to attend to in Paris. In any event Sarah Thomsen, as the leader of her quintet, was the narrator for this program.
Between 1965 and 1973, Ellington wrote three massive works that combined elements of jazz, classical music, choral music, spirituals, gospel, blues and dance. He called them his “sacred concerts,” and they were performed in churches and cathedrals around the world. He said it was the most important music he’d ever written.
In Part 2 the Sarah Thomsen Quintet, plus Germaine Thomas in the final four, presented American spiritual songs:
Presence of the Lord, by Eric Clapton
Amazing Grace, by John Newton
His Eye is on the Sparrow, by Martin and Gabriel
Take my Hand, Precious Lord, by Dorsey and Allen
Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, by Wallis Willis
After the final song, Ms Thomsen invited the audience to sing along to the chorus in a repetition of it. I was happy to do so, knowing most of the words, having sung along to this song and other Negro Spirituals on the radio when I was a child.
The audience demanded an encore, so Sarah Thomsen sang Duke Ellington’s Mood Indigo, accompanied by her instrumentalists. She said it was her favorite Ellington song. It elicited many memories for me and I thought this could not have been a more perfect ending to the concert.