Spirits Rising 

Two Heavenly Concerts Touch Down At Centennial Hall.

THIS WEEK, UAPRESENTS turns its ears heavenward with tributes to musicians who devoted themselves primarily to spiritual music. But there's nothing solemn about the doings in Centennial Hall; the music in both concerts is jubilant and earthy, perhaps enough for listeners to forget just how devout the honorees were.

That'll be especially easy on Saturday, March 18, when Trevor Pinnock leads the English Concert in Johann Sebastian Bach's six Brandenburg Concertos. Although Bach devoted most of his career to writing church music, he did produce the occasional secular work -- and these half-dozen concertos are the liveliest and most popular of them all.

On the other hand, Centennial's Thursday, March 16, show is all Savior, all the time. But it's bound to be even more dynamic than the secular Bach program. Entitled Joyful Noise, the evening opens with gospel superstar Mavis Staples in a tribute to an absolute gospel legend, Mahalia Jackson. After a break for the audience to catch its breath and mop up the sweat, Clarence Fountain and The Blind Boys of Alabama take the stage and bring on even more of that old-time religion.

Mavis Staples got her start almost as soon as she could part her lips and holler, performing with her family, The Staple Singers, on the gospel caravans of the 1950s. Before long Mavis became the lead vocalist, piloting The Staple Singers into such pop hits as "I'll Take You There," "Respect Yourself" and "Let's Do It Again." Staples went on to record a couple of solo albums for Paisley Park, the label run by The Artist Formerly Known As Prince. Staples has become a potent all-around soul singer, but she's still known as a gospel powerhouse. That should be more than evident in her homage to Mahalia Jackson (1911-1972), the reigning queen of gospel in her day and a crusader for civil rights.

Clarence Fountain and The Blind Boys of Alabama hail from just this side of Jackson's generation themselves. Some of them started singing informally together in 1937, back in their days at Talladega, Alabama's Institute for the Deaf and Blind. They practice what has aptly been described as a "foot-stomping, jubilee" style of gospel music, but their early experiences would have squelched the joy in less fervent believers. Black, blind and Southern, they seemed doomed from the start, but the group persevered, even surviving pressure from record execs to cross over to secular R&B. These days they're revered enough -- and probably cantankerous enough -- to be accepted on their own terms, whether that's on Beverly Hills 90210 or touring with the Broadway show The Gospel at Colonus (with which they swung through Tucson in 1997).

The Blind Boys of Alabama have been around so long that they could count as what classical musicians call "period instruments" -- fascinating, authentic examples of a bygone style that's kept alive by dedicated performers.

Period instruments are the big draw at Saturday's Bach concert: violins and violas with gut strings and loose bows, recorders and wood flutes, horns and trumpets that are fiendishly hard to play because they lack modern valves. A few decades ago there was more pain than joy in the noise these bands made, until a generation of virtuosi sprang up in the 1970s. Some of those crack musicians came together in 1973 as The English Concert, directed by harpsichordist Trevor Pinnock.

Between 1979 and 1984, The English Concert made a huge international impression with its recordings for the Archiv label of all Bach's concertos and orchestral suites. Those spirited, vivid performances remain highly regarded, even though the approach to Baroque music has become freer in the past 20 years. We'll soon see whether Pinnock and company are more daring than they used to be -- and they've never been wilting lilies, to be sure.

Bach himself was no daredevil. He carefully crafted his major works to serve as examples of what an experienced, imaginative composer could do with the tools of his time. In fact, he put together his six Brandenburg Concertos in 1721 on commission from the Margrave of Brandenburg, hoping no doubt that they'd impress the nobleman enough to lead to more lucrative commissions. They didn't, but their reception today is much more enthusiastic.

The scores are lively and inventive, but they're not concertos in the modern sense of pitting one instrument against an orchestra. The Brandenburgs usually give intermittent prominence to a tidy group of soloists -- violin, flute and harpsichord in No. 5, for instance -- in the company of a small body of strings. For these performances, Pinnock has a bit more than two dozen musicians at his disposal.

Bach probably wouldn't have known what to make of Mavis Staples and the Blind Boys of Alabama, but they're all after the same thing: connecting to the hearts and minds of their audiences, in the service of something bigger than us all.

Mavis Staples and The Blind Boys Of Alabama perform in Joyful Noise at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 16, at UA Centennial Hall, 1020 E. University Blvd., on campus just east of Park Avenue. Tickets range from $16 to $28, with discounts available for students, children, UA employees and UApresents season subscribers. Tickets are available at the Centennial Hall box office (621-3341).

Theodore Burgh of the UA School of Music offers a free discussion of gospel music 45 minutes before the performance in Room 102 of the Center for English as a Second Language, 1100 E. North Campus Drive, just north of Centennial Hall.

Trevor Pinnock leads The English Concert in Bach's Brandenburg Concertos at 8 p.m. Saturday, March 18, at Centennial Hall. Tickets range from $36 to $48, with discounts available for students, children, UA employees and UApresents season subscribers. Tickets are available at the Centennial Hall box office (621-3341).

Jay Rosenblatt of the UA School of Music offers a free discussion of Bach's music 45 minutes before the performance in Room 102 of the Center for English as a Second Language, 1100 E. North Campus Drive.


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