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Sunday, July 20, 2008

Zakiyyah's Concert

Instead of being out in the thunderstorm this afternoon, I attended a beautiful concert performance by my fellow Dorchesterite and former student, coloratura soprano Zakiyyah Sutton. (Yes, I had to look it up too. I used to know what coloratura meant, but I had forgotten.) The concert was held at the mostly white Old South Church in Copley Square, but was actually sponsored by the Concert Committee for Young People’s Artistry and Education of their sister UCC Church, the predominantly black Eliot Congregational Church in Roxbury. As you’ll see, this racial distinction turned out to be relevant.

Zakiyyah SuttonZakiyyah, who just graduated from the Boston Arts Academy, was a student of mine for two summers at Crimson Summer Academy and will be attending Wellesley College in the fall. She sang an amazing 14 numbers in this concert: ten as solos and four as duets with fellow performer Jamal Hoskins, a tenor, who performed five solos (and, of course, four duets). The Eliot Studio Singers accompanied a few of the songs as well.

By far the best performance was Zakiyyah’s rendition of the aria “Der Hölle Rache” from Mozart’s Magic Flute. This was actually her second song in German, since she had opened the concert with “Bist Du Bei Mir,” attributed to J.S. Bach in the program but apparently actually written by Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel, or so they say. Zakiyyah’s other two pre-intermission solos were Scarlatti songs, both beautifully sung in Italian; she was so convincing in both languages that it was only afterwards that I found out that she actually doesn’t speak either of them.

The second half of the concert was less familiar to me, including a song from Aladdin, one by Stevie Wonder, and several gospel numbers, only two of which I knew. Culturally speaking, I found the performance eye-opening in several ways, starting with the fact that I was in a small minority in the audience (there were probably only six or seven whites there) and I have very little familiarity with the traditions of the black church, both for racial and religious reasons. Sure, I know about them second-hand from books, plays, and movies, but it’s something quite different to be immersed in the black church in person. The differences became vividly evident when Zakiyyah movingly dedicated a song (“His eye is on the sparrow”) to her ailing father and then broke down when she started to sing it. The audience was just so supportive of her, and in a way that no white audience could have been. I don’t meant to suggest that a white audience wouldn’t have been equally supportive, because of course they would have tried to be — they just wouldn’t have been able to show it very well. The interaction between performer and audience was just so meaningful and effective in this context.

About ten minutes later, Zakiyyah got back up and said that she had recovered and wanted to sing the song the way it should be done. Actually, I thought she had sung it perfectly well the first time — she did manage to get through it successfully with the aid of the audience — but I have to admit that the second rendition was truly beautiful, and I’m glad she decided to do it.

In general, the solos were much more effective than the duets, perhaps because Zakiyyah was definitely the stronger performer. But their closing number, a duet version of “Amazing Grace,” was moving and perfect.

I’ll close with a couple of non-musical notes: the opening remarks by Old South Church Associate Minister Quinn Caldwell included an African proverb that definitely resonated with me: “If you want to walk fast, walk alone; if you want to walk far, walk together.” This speaks to me in part because of what it says about teaching. (More about that in a later post.) Also, I was struck by the explicit recognition of two judges in the audience: Judge Leslie E. Harris and Judge Milton L. Wright, Jr.; the latter turns out to be “a gifted singer and writer of a musical production as well as a lawyer.” The musical director from the Eliot Church pointed out that performances like this one show “Roxbury on the good side,” in contrast to what they usually see in court. While Zakiyyah is from Dorchester, the point is still completely valid and contrasts with what we usually hear on the news. Crime is news; music isn’t.

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