On A Spiritual Road: Song, faith, family at heart of ensemble's travels

Sunday, January 23, 2005
Around lunchtime on a Friday afternoon earlier this month, a big, blue tour bus wound down the long driveway at James and Foye Watkins' farm, halfway between Nashville and the Tennessee-Alabama state line.

On board was Hope Koehler, the Watkinses' daughter, and her second family of sorts, the American Spiritual Ensemble. Inside the home was a dinner worthy of a major holiday -- pork loin, chicken breast medallions, broccoli casserole, black-eyed peas, creamed corn and buttery rolls.

Around four tables, the Spiritual Ensemble members communed, trading stories, memories and thoughts, like any family that gathers just a few times a year.

The Spiritual Ensemble, under the direction of University of Kentucky voice professor Everett McCorvey, has gathered like this for 10 years. McCorvey founded the group to help preserve spirituals -- songs that, primarily, originated with slaves.

Members get together three times a year to record and tour, including an annual sold-out summer tour of Spain. The group usually travels with about 20 people who come to Lexington from around the country. This year's winter tour started with a journey to McCorvey's old stomping ground in Alabama and ends today with a performance at First Christian Church in Richmond.

In addition to tours, there are events such as the occasional wedding. When singers Andrea Jones-Sojola and Phumzile Sojola got married in September, they wanted the Spiritual Ensemble to be part of it.

"We were afraid that it wouldn't happen, that it would just be too hard," Sojola said, snuggling with his wife at the back of the tour bus.

But the group came, with a few members singing solos during the wedding and the entire ensemble performing at the reception.

Accompanist Tedrin Blair Lindsay considers the ensemble "my church family," even though he's a member of a Lexington church. "These are the people that I worship with. When we are giving concerts, it's more than just a concert, it's a worship experience, and people sense that."

Even newcomers are quickly drawn into the fold.

The night they arrived in Alabama, the ensemble dined at The Cypress Inn in Tuscaloosa, a riverside restaurant much like Hall's on the River. It was the birthday of Frances Jones, who was on her first tour, so the group sang Happy Birthday to her.

Once the rendition ended in a flurry of soaring soprano, a woman popped up from a neighboring table and said, "I don't know what church you go to, but we have to come!"

While there are church choir elements to the ensemble, it's an assortment of mostly professional singers from around the nation. Three former members have sung on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera. The most recent member at the Met was Angela Brown, who debuted in the title role in Aida last fall. Brown's debut CD, Mosaic, was released last fall by Albany Records with support from the Spiritual Ensemble. Mosaic includes Watch and Pray, Brown's show-stopper when she was with the ensemble.

The group uses profits from its tours to support projects such as ensemble CDs (there are two) or solo projects of group members. The cast changes a bit with each tour as singers come in and out depending on other gigs.

Angelique Clay started singing with the ensemble as a doctoral student with McCorvey but missed a few tours when she began teaching at Oakwood College in Huntsville, Ala. She said she missed the group.

Clay acted as a sort of faux diva occasionally, complaining in jest when a taller member of the group was placed in front of her and picking on McCorvey about solo selection. Real divas, group members say, need not apply because the ensemble seeks harmony on and off the stage.

There was a lot of laughter as the bus wound its way down the road. The quietest moments came when a DVD of great opera singers played. As singers like Leontyne Price came on the screen, Alfonse Anderson, a voice professor from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, talked quietly with McCorvey, like basketball coaches studying game film.

Singing, in the end, is their job, a bit of an obsession, and occasionally a gift.

After supper with the Watkinses, the ensemble gathered in the living room for a rendition of We Shall Walk Through the Valley in Peace.

Foye Watkins listened, often with her eyes closed, and James Watkins wore one of those proud papa smiles. The room swelled with the words about meeting loved ones and Jesus. After the song, the group headed back to the bus, clasping hands with and hugging Koehler's parents as they left.

Koehler was the last out the door. Eyes a little puffy, she secured the gate at the end of the walkway to the house as her mother and father looked on. She waved and turned to return to the bus and her other family.

The American Spiritual Ensemble
When: 3 p.m. today.
Where: First Christian Church, 412 W. Main St., at Lancaster Ave., Richmond.
Tickets: $12 general admission, $5 students; purchase at the door or reserve by calling (859) 624-4242.
Reach Rich Copley at (859) 231-3217 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3217, or rcopley@herald-leader.com.

Published on January 23, 2005, Page D1, Lexington Herald-Leader (KY)
By Rich Copley, Lexington Herald-Leader Arts Writer