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A different kind of American music

THE POPULARITY of American pop, rock, and rap music in Slovakia sometimes drowns out America's long tradition of folk songs and spirituals.
That tradition was wonderfully demonstrated on July 1 by the Mastersingers USA, a men's choir that performed at St. Martin's Cathedral in Bratislava.

THE POPULARITY of American pop, rock, and rap music in Slovakia sometimes drowns out America's long tradition of folk songs and spirituals.

That tradition was wonderfully demonstrated on July 1 by the Mastersingers USA, a men's choir that performed at St. Martin's Cathedral in Bratislava.

The performance was a stop on the choir's weeklong tour through Central Europe that took it to seven different cities in three countries. Its visit to Slovakia was supported by the US Embassy in Bratislava.

"One of our mandates at the embassy is to expose people to American culture and create a greater understanding that it's not all Coca-Cola and McDonald's," Press Attaché Keith Hughes told The Slovak Spectator.

A 60-member choir divided into first and second tenors, baritones, and basses, the Mastersingers USA is made up of non-professional musicians aged 20 to 60 who formed the group after studying or working under their beloved director, Bruce McInnes.

McInnes directed choruses for 40 years at Amherst College in Massachusetts, as well as other schools, and Grace Church in New York. He gathers the singers together for rehersals and a performance once a year and takes them on tour every two to three years.

"The choir members are doctors and lawyers and scientists," McInnes explained in an interview after the concert. "One's even an Episcopalian priest. And they pay their own way for these tours. They all do it because they love it."

Four-part choral music's usual structure is that the highest voice provides the melody, the inner voices supply the harmony, and the lowest voice forms the rhythm. A chorus is considered good if it blends well, maintains focus through the vocal line, displays a command of dynamics, and is responsive to the conductor.

On this basis, the Mastersingers USA was exemplary. It began by accompanying the afternoon mass at St. Martin's with Missa Regina Coeli, a sacred work by the 16th century church composer Jacobus de Kerle.

The choir's unique and rich blend was evident from the opening Kyrie section, with the first tenors sounding clearly audible, but not shrill or overpowering. Each entrance on new lines was clean and well-timed, and final consonants were whispered, not hissed. In the Sanctus and the Agnus Dei, the choir showed off its command of dynamics. Both tenor sections had moments of real glory, with awe expressed through pure volume and intensity that expanded without losing its depth.

With the mass completed, the Mastersingers moved closer to the pews for a short concert of American folk songs and spirituals.

Spirituals originated with African slaves brought to America to work on Southern plantations. Their lyrics, coded so that the owners and overseers could not understand them, provided a way for the slaves to express their suffering and longing for the freedom (referred to as "home or "the Promised Land") that existed to the north of the Ohio River ("Jordan"). Many spirituals even included coded directions on the route an escaping slave should follow to reach safety in the North (the famous spiritual Follow the Drinking Gourd instructed slaves to follow the Big Dipper, a constellation that points north, and described landmarks along the way).

On July 1, the Mastersingers performed I Am a Poor Wayfaring Stranger, an anguished spiritual that uses the "Jordan" and "home" references to full effect. Soloist Geoffrey Piper sang with resonance and touching emotion, and projected well on the song's broad, high notes. Another highlight was Ain't Got Time to Die, a more modern spiritual by famed 20th century arranger and composer Hall Johnson. Soloist Matthew Burnell elicited an ovation from the audience for his fiery devotion and swinging vocal lines.

The next day, the choir moved on to Trnava, where they were incorporated into the program of the Dobrofest music and dance festival.

"The mayor came out to meet them," Dana Palčiková of the US Embassy's Cultural Affairs Department told The Slovak Spectator. "They got a standing ovation."

Larry Newland, an American conductor who lives and performs in Slovakia, understands why.

"Spirituals are a special kind of music that just grabs you right away," he said.

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