The Norfolk State University Concert Choir, under the baton of Dr. Harlan Zackery Jr., delivered two rousing performances for Upper and Middle School students at Norfolk Academy.
The choir of about 50 singers performed spiritual music sung by African Americans who were enslaved, commonly referred to as Negro spirituals. “The spiritual grew out of the strife of the slaves," Dr. Zackery noted, as he introduced the program. The music began as humming, since African Americans were not permitted to speak their native languages; the songs also had a strong rhythm, because much of the work that enslaved people did was repetitive.
The choir opened with “Down by the Riverside," which opens with the familiar line expressing weariness, “Gonna lay down my burden/Down by the riverside." The program also included two spirituals influenced by Undine Smith Moore (1904-1989), a composer and professor of music at Virginia State University often referred to as the Dean of Black Women Composers. “We Shall Walk Through the Valley in Peace," a spiritual arranged by Moore, and “I Am Going Home Again."
The choir also sang the haunting, “I Wish I Never Was Born." That was followed by “Stand Up" (Joshuah Brian Campbell and Cynthia Erivo, co-writers) from the motion picture, Harriet, about the astonishing achievements of Harriet Tubman in taking enslaved people to freedom via the Underground Railroad, a network of secret routes and safe houses that relied on many hidden signals to be successful. Dr. Zackery noted that many spirituals contained hints about what needed to be done to get to freedom, including the choir's closing number, “Didn't My Lord Deliver Daniel?" by Moses Hogan.
Dr. Zackery is Director of Choral Activities and conductor of the Concert Choir at Norfolk State University. He earned his doctorate from the University of Southern Mississippi, and he has performed throughout the United States, Europe, Mexico and Canada as a piano soloist, accompanist, conductor and clinician. The choir was accompanied on piano by Terry Butler, a Norfolk native who earned undergraduate and graduate degrees at NSU and now serves as assistant director of choral activities.
The choir's performances, conducted largely with masks on except for soloists, filled the theater to the rafters with harmonious sound. It was met with hugely enthusiastic standing ovations from students and faculty. While the group has performed at Norfolk Academy in past years to much acclaim, the pandemic created a long hiatus before this triumphant return to the Johnson Theater stage, an absence that has been sorely felt.
“You didn't miss a beat!" said Headmaster Dennis Manning with heartfelt admiration, as he thanked the choir after the first performance. “You have powered through the pandemic."