Honoring the Fisk Jubilee Singers

Professor Donna McElroy (center) joins with the Fisk Jubilee Singers at a special February 21 concert tribute to Fisk University and its famed choral group at Boston’s Symphony Hall.
Dave Green

The Nashville-based Fisk University has a storied history as one of the nation’s leading black colleges. On February 21, Fisk celebrated its 150th anniversary. As part of Berklee’s Signature Series, a commemorative concert was held at Boston’s Symphony Hall and paid tribute to the university and its renowned choral ensemble, the Fisk Jubilee Singers. Since 1871, the group has introduced the spiritual and African American religious music throughout the world. In addition to a large audience of alumni from both Berklee and Fisk University, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Frank L. Sims, president of Fisk University, were in attendance.

Former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and Harvard professor and author Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot delivered narration with the music, consisting of poetry and verse written by Boston-area poet and writer Terry E. Carter, a Fisk alumnus.

The Symphony Hall audience heard songs that “covered slavery’s most naked truths and uncovered the strength and character of an enslaved multitude in simultaneous symphony,” Patrick recited. “Yet despite its captive origins, it is not a music of resignation and acquiescence to a foreign host. It is rather the sound of liberation’s most fervent and hopeful call.”

The Fisk Jubilee Singers shone on spirituals such as “There Is a Balm in Gilead” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” among others. The evening also included performances by Berklee Voice Department professor Donna McElroy, an alumna of the Jubilee Singers; an orchestra featuring faculty members from Berklee and the Boston Conservatory playing pieces composed and conducted by Composition Department professor Julius Williams; Ensemble Department professor Dennis Montgomery III; the Boston Children’s Chorus; and student and faculty groups performing songs under the direction of McElroy and Jerome Kyles, assistant professor in Berklee’s Voice Department. McElroy drew a standing ovation for her soul-stirring performance of the spiritual “Soon Ah Will Be Done.”

Paul T. Kwami, the musical director of the Jubilee Singers, led the orchestra and singers in a stunning performance of the spiritual “Hold On” before the program drew to a close with McElroy leading the vocalists in Fisk’s alma mater song, “The Gold and Blue.”

Following the concert, Berklee President Roger H. Brown noted, “We were honored and proud to pay tribute to the towering musical and social achievements of the Fisk Jubilee Singers. This was truly a historic evening—the music was uplifting and the narration was immensely powerful.”

The event received support from lead sponsors Cathy and Jim Stone and colead sponsor Hassell McClellan. Supporting sponsors included Amy and David Abrams, Vivian C. Beard, Nina and David Fialkow, and State Street Corporation.

The evening also served as a fundraiser, with donors contributing more than $50,000 to a scholarship to support a Berklee student specializing in spiritual and gospel music.