Opera Meets Gospel Music in Joyful Collaboration at the St. James Music Series

In the vast world of musical performance, there are many clans. From 100-member orchestras to solo piano and violin virtuosos, from string quartets to jazz combos, from oratorio societies to barbershop quartets, from grand opera companies to high school musicals, and much more. But it is rare to encounter members from different musical traditions performing together on the same stage.

Janai Brugger & Ken Anderson [photo (c.) Alex Benestelli]

Sunday’s concert presented by La Jolla’s St. James Music Series, however, offered an exceptional collaboration between two very different musical arenas, opera and gospel choir. Taking a short break from her current performance in L.A. Opera’s The Marriage of Figaro production, soprano Janai Brugger and pianist Rachelle Jonck performed opera arias and art songs, and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Choir San Diego under the direction of Ken Anderson offered spirituals and gospel choral gems.

And for the concert’s closing choral selections, Janai Brugger joined Anderson’s choristers as guest soloist. The casual phrase “the best of both worlds” would be praise far too faint.

In Brugger’s program-opening aria from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro “Deh, vieni, non tadar,” her radiant phrasing and shimmering sonority clearly demonstrated why this young soprano was the featured cover story of this month’s Opera News magazine. After Susanna’s celebrated aria, Brugger sang Ilia’s lilting “Zeffiretti lusingheri” from Mozart’s opera seria Idomeneo, Re di Creta. Mozart employs long strings of quick notes to symbolize the text’s rustling breezes, and Brugger sailed effortlessly through these dazzling fioriture.

With two art songs by Florence Price, Brugger paid tribute to the early 20th-century African-American composer whose music is enjoying a well-deserved—though sadly belated—revival. Price’s “Because” displays the slow, earnest pace of a probing spiritual, and “Bewilderment” builds to a thundering climax because of its rhapsodic piano part, played with great command by Jonck.

“Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round” is one of those spirituals filled with heaven-storming determination, and with the MLK Community Choir’s robust, disciplined declamation and Ken Anderson’s bold vocal lead, it confidently opened the choir’s portion of the program. In the rousing gospel numbers “O Lord, We Sing Your Praises” and “Worship the Lord, Praise His Holy Name,” Anderson led from the piano. His robust, stylish gospel accompaniment encouraged the choir’s fervent repeated refrains, and for a while the decorous setting of St. James by-the-Sea Episcopal Church was transformed into a rousing Pentecostal tabernacle.

For the familiar spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” Jnai Brugger joined the choir, taking the lead in traditional call and response style. Her poise and graceful phrasing suited the spiritual’s deepest aspirations, and the choir’s gentle harmonies caressed each phrase. Closing the program with “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah” Brugger and the MLK Community Choir provided a rousing benediction to this profound experience of great, heartfelt musical collaboration.

This program was presented by the St. James Music Series at La Jolla’s St. James by-the-Sea Episcopal Church on Sunday, February 12, 2023.

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