SALISBURY, MD--- Created in the fields and plantation houses of the old South, the spiritual allowed slaves to secretly communicate through singing.
An upcoming PBS documentary traces the history of this original art form and features award-winning tenor John Wesley Wright, of Salisbury University’s Department of Music, with the contemporary group, the American Spiritual Ensemble. The 30-minute program is expected to begin airing on PBS this summer.
Wright joined the 24-member contemporary ensemble last year. “Not only is he a fantastic artist but an amazing person,” said Dr. Everett McCorvey, the group’s founder and music director. “He has a voice that touches your soul and because of his wonderful spirit, beautiful voice and incredible musicianship, he is a valued member of the group.”
The Spirituals spotlights Wright and the ensemble as they enchant audiences during a tour of the American South and across the Atlantic to Spain in hopes of preserving the African-American spiritual, created for deliverance and communication. It traces the painful and bitter history of this form of musical expression, distinguished by its African roots and biblical text.
“The first time you watch it, it’s so overwhelming to take it all in,” Wright said. “They made some of our solos into music videos, so you’ve got people actually walking through cotton fields while singing. My piece is in a concert setting.” The film is also interspersed with comments by experts in the field of African-American music.
According to McCorvey, a professor of voice at the University of Kentucky, one of the highlights is a visit to a South Carolina church where congregation members sing call and response songs. “That is a lost tradition in the black church,” he said. “Their participation in the film is so authentic and I am happy we were able to document it.”
Founded in 1995, the American Spiritual Ensemble is based in Lexington, KY, and tours three times each year statewide and in Spain. They perform in Maryland on Sunday, February 11, at the Weinberg Center for the Arts in Frederick.
Wright, who is known for his artistic and soulful interpretations of music from classical to Broadway, has sung as a soloist and in ensembles throughout the United States, Europe and Japan. He also performed a nationally televised concert for the Belgian Royal Family and appeared with Switzerland’s premiere Baroque ensemble.
Wright's live concert CD, Wade in the Water: Songs of the River, the Lakes, and the Sea, was released in March 2004. In 2000, he was the gold medalist and $10,000 top prize winner of the Savannah Music Festival American Traditions Vocal Competition and has also claimed awards from the National Federation of Music Clubs, the Metropolitan Opera National Council and the International Schubert Competition.
Prior to joining the University’s voice faculty last fall, Wright served as Artist-in-Residence for eight years at the University of Dayton in Ohio. This summer he was guest artist and clinician at the North Carolina School of the Arts and the Kentucky Governor’s School. He is a member of the National Association of Teachers of Singing and his students may be found on Broadway tours and opera stages. A native of Rome, GA, Wright earned a Master of Music from Ohio’s University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. He is an active vocal consultant and leader of workshops on "Singing in the African American Tradition" in schools and churches.