CSO Spiritual Ensemble celebrates Robert Nathaniel Dett

The CSO Spiritual Ensemble will perform a Piccolo Spoleto Festival program featuring the works of Robert Nathaniel Dett. (Grace Beahm/postandcourier.com)

At what point do spiritual and classical music converge? With the melodies of the underrated North American composer Robert Nathaniel Dett, according to members of the CSO Spiritual Ensemble.

Dedicated to highlighting African-American composers, the CSO Spiritual Ensemble will celebrate the legacy Dett in their Piccolo Spoleto performance.

Born in Ontario, Canada, Dett spent a great portion of his life at the historically black university, Hampton College, as its music director. In his time there, he founded several musical groups and composed many of his choral compositions, a few of which the CSO Spiritual Ensemble will sing at its concert, 5 p.m. Saturday at Citadel Square Baptist Church, ___. Michael Scott Giuliani will conduct.

The 35-person multiracial ensemble has been learning Dett’s pieces for the past year and finally found the opportunity to show audiences how important his work is, according to Executive Producer Lee Pringle.

“This is the music that involved toil and back-breaking work that built a nation,” Pringle said. The spirituals by Dett featured in the concert all have classical elements not often found in other spirituals. “His music is so profound because he was ahead of his time. Because of this, he was overlooked and underrated.”

Dett’s choral arrangements are often overlooked because of their complexity, Pringle added. His more difficult pieces include lengthy melismas and eight-part harmonies, often meant to be performed without accompaniment.

“Because it is acapella, the most challenging part is listening,” said soprano Lekeatra Daniels, who is soloist in the song “Listen to the Lambs.” “If we don’t listen to one another, we will go off (key) so quickly.”

Daniels, who began singing with the Charleston Children’s Chorus, said that the classical elements of Dett’s spiritual arrangements has made the pieces extremely beautiful — worth the rigorous rehearsals, which usually last two and a half hours.

Antonio Tillis, dean of the School of Languages, Cultures and World Affairs at the College of Charleston, agreed. He joined the ensemble four months ago. Tillis said being able to perform the neglected works of Dett is one of the most rewarding parts about learning this music.

“For us to be able to perform the music with the right interpretation,” he said, “it takes it to the level of ministry, of how spirituals are supposed to be delivered.”

In October, the group will participate in the 3rd annual Colour of Music Festival in October, the brainchild of Pringle. The festival will bring together black classical musicians from all over the U.S. to perform a variety of classical works, including some by 20th and 21st century black composers.

Pringle hopes that the ensemble’s focus on underappreciated black composers will prompt young men and women of color to break out of social confines and study classical music.

“If through the Robert Nathaniel Dett performance we inspire one little black boy or girl to say, ‘You know, that’s what I want to do,’ we are contributing to a multigenerational change,” Pringle said. “We know what we are doing.”

Love Lee is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.