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Kathleen Battle, a pure and authentic voice

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Kathleen Battle, a pure and authentic voice

As the world watched inaugural poet Amanda Gorman, all of 5’4” tall, reading her poem “The Hill We Climb” on January 20, 2021, once again the expression “Good things come in small packages” rang true. I was reminded of soprano Kathleen Battle, who, herself only 5’3”, had a voice so pure that it carried to the farthest rows of the largest opera houses. Gorman, who started writing and then reciting poetry to overcome a speech impediment, wants to cross over into politics, and in fact has declared her intention to run for President of the United States in 2036. Battle, like her friend Jessye Norman was able to, can cross over more elegantly than most between classical and gospel.

Jessye Norman, as the spiritual “Deep River” describes, “crossed over into campground” in 2019, but Kathleen Battle is still with us. Unfortunately, her 1991 CD with Jessye Norman “Spirituals in Concert” is no longer in print.

However, one of my very favorite CDs, a holiday CD, is still available. Kathleen Battle recorded “Angels Glory” with guitarist Christopher Parkening in 1996. Her voice, described in The New York Times as recently as 2008 as “one of the purest voices” is simply that on the CD, and with only the six strings of Parkening’s guitar to accompany, is completely exposed for what it is, flawless. But there’s an added element to this CD that I’m going to call “authenticity.”

Kathleen Battle grew up in Portsmouth, Ohio, the youngest of seven children. Her dad was a steelworker, up from Alabama in the Great Migration, and he and her mom were gospel singers in their local African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church. Now, when it comes to singing gospel, hymns, and spirituals, there’s no getting around it. Either you grew up in the life or you didn’t. Battle did, and the music just, to use a word found in many gospel songs, flows from her.

I’ve heard her in Buffalo twice. Once in recital with piano and in 2013 at Kleinhans with the Buffalo Philharmonic. In both cases she sang gospel hymns. And at both times, the audience was electrified by that voice.

But, her crossover career almost didn’t happen. Battle reports that early in her education, conductor Robert Sadin pointed out a life that could go beyond classical and opera. "He said 'You're not just going to sing Mozart and Rossini: You're a black woman and you came from a church background.' He sensed something in me and my delivery that might meld well with music outside the classical genre."

And so it has. Christopher Parkening’s journey was different. He was firmly in the world of classical guitar performance when, in mid-life, he had a religious conversion, and has been using music as a ministry ever since. And that comes through in the recording “Angels Glory” which includes such works as “Wasn’t That A Mighty Day,” “Gesù Bambino,” “Mary and Her Baby Chile,” and my personal favorite “Mary Did You know?”

Kathleen Battle, may her purity of voice and fervent spirit, inspire us for years to come. In 2036 she’ll be only 88 years old. I’m wondering if she could be booked for an inauguration performance?