Kathleen Battle graces the stage of the DSO

Kathleen+Battle+graces+the+stage+of+the+DSO

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Soprano Kathleen Battle is a Grammy Award Winner and has sung for two popes.

Despite the current economic difficulty plaguing the city, the seats at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s concert Saturday night were packed. Concert-goers flocked from Detroit and its outlying cities for the red carpet event of the night.

In its 14th year, the Classical Roots Celebration was again a great success with music director Leonard Slatkin taking the podium alongside a special guest artist that Detroit hasn’t seen since 2006 — world-renowned light lyric-coloratura soprano Kathleen Battle.

This year’s Classical Roots Celebration, held to increase awareness of the contributions of African-American composers and musicians in classical music, raised over $180,000 to provide increased opportunities for African-Americans in classical music and support the DSO’s music development programs including the African American Fellowship.

The DSO praises Detroit’s rich history and has supported African-American composers and performers more than any other major orchestra in the country. The orchestra’s commitment to the cause dates back to its contributions to the landmark Black Composers Series for Columbia Records in the 1970s.

Although I have walked through the doors of Orchestra Hall more times than I can recall, I hardly recognized the space which had been transformed into a hall worthy of the Oscars. Doormen, reminiscent of guards you might see in the Royal Palace, greeted me at the door.

Although it was a black tie event, dress ranged from spiffy tuxes and blinding-gold dresses to traditional African garbs.

The Brazeal Dennard Chorale set the concert’s spiritual tone with  “Lift Ev’ry Voice”, arranged by Roland Carter, followed by the DSO’s  performance of “Chuphshah, Harriet’s Drive to Canaan” (2011) by Michigan-born James Lee III who found inspiration for his piece in the life of the activist and abolitionist Harriet Tubman.

After a thunderous applause from the audience, a drawn-out silence ensued as we were made to wait for Battle who had failed to enter the stage. Finally the murmuring of the audience was replaced by another thunderous applause as Battle and Slatkin entered.

Battle,65, is in the twilight of her career. Her chilling performance, however, gave no hint of her age. Her program, consisting entirely of African-American spirituals in remembrance of the Underground Railroad, was expertly arranged to accent her strengths and prevent tiring her aging voice.

Although Battle has sung countless operatic leading roles with esteemed opera houses throughout her career (including the Metropolitan Opera), African-American spirituals have always been a part of her concert repertoire.

After her final piece, the audience was not ready to let her part, and after many shouts of “encore”, Battle graced us with a painfully beautiful, a capella rendition of “Were You There”. The audience responded to particularly moving verses, with a rising murmur mirroring a congregation answering the call of a preacher with cries of “Amen!”.

Through her pure-tone and heartfelt sincerity in the sorrow and joy of  each song, Battle truly moved the audience and made time stand still.