I attended a concert of the Fisk Jubilee Singers at the Smith Opera House in Geneva, New York, last Saturday night. The concert was something of a homecoming, as the singers had once before performed at the Smith. That performance was in 1895, when the Smith was less than a year old. As the performance was marvelous, we can hope that the singing group does not wait another 128 years to perform in the Finger Lakes.
I was not quite sure what to expect, though I knew that the group sang Negro spirituals. In fact, there were 15 black Fisk students singing acapella. There was no director and no risers. The students came from across the country, but only one was from the South. (That one was from Austin.) I found this surprising. Many, though not all, were music majors.
Fisk was established after the Civil War to provide a liberal arts education to the recently emancipated. In 1871, it was on the verge of bankruptcy but was saved by sending a chorus around the country singing slave songs that were not well-known within the general population. The Fisk Jubilee Singers sang at the White House, toured Europe, and sang for Queen Victoria.
The group sang what are referred to as concert spirituals. I expected the usual, somewhat raucous, gospel music I associate with the black church. Instead, I was treated to the velvety smooth sound of sophisticated arrangements of mostly familial gospel tunes delivered at a leisurely pace. The house was nearly full, and the audience was enthusiastic.
If you have a chance to hear this group, do take advantage of the opportunity.