In a fine and adventurous program, the Howard University Chorale scored a hit at the National Gallery of Art last night. There were familiar pieces by Bruckner, Brahms and others, as well as several spirituals. There were also villancicos by black Hispanic composers, rare works of love and scholarship as sung by this group.
Blacks outnumbered the Spaniards in much of the Americas in the 17th century, and their influence on standard European musical forms was as profound as it is overlooked today. The sweet simplicity of short Spanish and Portuguese choral songs was visited by surprising rhythms and thicker textures, developing into the negro a ocho, or black song for eight voices. The Howard chorus sang an anonymous example of that form, together with works by Gutierrez de Padilla and Salazar. While the diction was only approximate, the flavor was authentic and the singing lovely indeed.
An "Alleluia" by Randall Thompson closed a set of four motets with layer upon layer of melody on that single word growing in the grand acoustics of the East Garden Court. The voice of Felicia Coleman, the soprano soloist in the spiritual "Amazing Grace," was one more of the many marvels in this early evening treat.