Tenor Roland Hayes, whose centennial is being celebrated this year, was a pivotal figure in American music -- the first black singer to make a solid career interpreting the classical German and French song repertoire. He triumphed in France and Germany before becoming a success here, but he never got to sing at the Metropolitan Opera. He did live to see that barrier broken in 1955, first by Marian Anderson near the end of her career and then by baritone Robert McFerrin near the beginning of his.
McFerrin, like scores of others who have risen to international stardom, acknowledges that it would have been impossible without Hayes' pioneering efforts. Sunday, in Howard University's Andrew Rankin Memorial Chapel, McFerrin gave an extraordinary recital in honor of Hayes' anniversary and in recognition of the debt owed to him by all black classical singers.
"I heard Roland Hayes sing when he was 70, and he sounded like he was 35," McFerrin confided to the standing-room audience. "But at 35, he couldn't sing the way he did when he was 70. He just kept growing and improving as an artist."
At 66, McFerrin gave a graphic illustration of what he was talking about. His intonation was slightly tentative for a minute or two at the beginning of the recital, but his tone was rich and firm from the first time he opened his mouth, and his style and technique, his sense of how to pace a program and carry it to a climax, his ability to bring out the poetry and drama in his French, German and Italian texts were phenomenal.
The program opened, appropriately, with Schubert's "An die Musik," the most perfect of all musical tributes to the art of music, and it ended with a series of spirituals, two arranged by Hayes, one arranged by Hall Johnson and dedicated to him, and finally one dedicated to McFerrin by Johnson. In between, a Schubert group was followed by the first seven numbers of Schumann's "Dichterliebe" -- rising, in "Ich grolle nicht," to a dramatic climax of overwhelming intensity. Three operatic selections ("Eri tu" from "Un Ballo in Maschera," the Prologue to "I Pagliacci" and "Vision Fugitive" from "He'rodiade") found McFerrin in his most familiar environment, but he was also effective in the highly specialized style of Duparc's "Phydile'" and "L'Invitation au Voyage."
Raymond Jackson, at the piano, was more than an accompanist; he was a full partner in this program. It is not an easy thing to do justice to Roland Hayes in a single two-hour program, but McFerrin and Jackson managed it nicely.