Wednesday , May 22 2024
Joseph Parrish at the Crypt Sessions
Photo credit: Steven Pisano

Concert Review: Bass-Baritone Joseph Parrish, ‘Songs and Spirituals’

Death of Classical’s Crypt Sessions concerts offer a variety of chamber music in a setting with unusual acoustics and an even more unusual atmosphere. Last night the ornate, candle-lit Crypt inside the Church of the Intercession in Harlem proved a perfect venue for the deep and distinctive timbre of bass-baritone Joseph Parrish in a program of the singer’s own devising that revealingly combined German lieder with art-song versions of Negro spirituals.

German Lieder, Negro Spirituals, and the Range of Human Emotions

Parrish’s voice, Francesco Barfoed’s (occasionally too-achingly) expressive piano accompaniment, and the crypt’s soundbath worked together to support Parish’s contention that 19th-century German lieder and American Negro spirituals share lyrical themes and can live easily together in an evening of music. The music of both traditions encompasses, Parish said, “the entire range of human emotions.”

The singer accompanied himself on piano on the opening song, “Calling You” – written by Bob Telson and originally recorded by gospel singer Jevetta Steele – and again in an encore. With a musical background, as he described in our recent profile, Parrish displayed assurance and sensitivity on the keyboard. This first number was also a showcase for both his powerful upper register and a resonant lower range that gives him a patina of wisdom and experience that belie his age.

Joseph Parrish at the Crypt Sessions from Death of Classical
Photo credit: Steven Pisano

With Barfoed taking over at the piano, Parrish sang a set of two spirituals and Franz Liszt’s musically straightforward miniature “Es muss ein Wunderbares sein.” To my ear, the pieces flowed together perfectly naturally. Parrish’s voice, the sophisticated arrangements, and the unorthodox but rather formal setting gave the proceedings the flavor of an old-fashioned chamber recital, perhaps even one taking place in the 19th century.

Burleigh, Brahms and Brown in the Crypt

The most prominent of the African American composers on the program was Harry Burleigh. Burleigh was actually behind more of the selections than the program indicated. Parrish rendered two Burleigh settings of poems of James Weldon Johnson, “Her Eyes Twin Pools” and “The Glory of the Day was in Her Face,” with marvelous diction and high drama. They led into Brahms‘ passion-charged “Unbewegte laue Luft.” Here Barfoed’s accompaniment rose to the forefront and shone to match Parrish’s deft marshaling of melody and tone for maximum effect.

Harry T. Burleigh. Credit: Maud Cuney-Hare, 1874-1936, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Harry T. Burleigh. Credit: Maud Cuney-Hare, 1874-1936, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

As an intriguing kind of fulcrum for the program, Parrish inserted the bluesy vocalise “A song without words” by Charles Brown. This proved a spellbinding journey of exquisite dynamics, set aloft by humming and open notes with no lyrics. It was a solid demonstration of the young singer’s well-developed ability to mine emotional depths with his vocal tone and persona alone.

The second half of the set included a powerful take on “Deep River” and two lieder by Mahler. It closed with Mahler’s “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen,” wrought with spacious tone and range and well-modulated dynamics. In English translation Friedrich Rückert’s lyrics include the lines “I am lost to the world…I live alone in my heaven / In my love and in my song.” Ironically it’s music like this and performances like this that ensure the opposite: that we, artist and audience, don’t live alone, but are bonded by music.

Parrish accompanied himself again on two encores, a heartfelt hymn and an enthralling surprise rendition of Leon Russell’s classic “A Song For You.” Parish’s version of the latter was filtered through Donnie Hathaway’s, but became his own. So did the audience. With charismatic stage presence to go with his vast talent and skill, Joseph Parrish may well have what it takes to become a widely celebrated soloist on both the classical and crossover scenes.

Visit the Death of Classical website for upcoming Crypt Sessions concerts and other series.

About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Music, where he covers classical music (old and new) and other genres, and Culture, where he reviews NYC theater. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at where he is on a mission to visit every park in New York City. He has also been a part-time working musician, including as lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado.

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