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Surrounded by Spirituals

Springfield resident conducts Metropolitan Chorus' Black History Month concert.

Mention American music, and the sounds of rock 'n roll, jazz and blues might echo through the mind's ear. But Barry Hemphill sees deeper roots to that music; ones that reach all the way back to Africa.

Hemphill, the conductor of The Metropolitan Chorus, believes African-American spirituals are as much a part Americana as any other genre of music. "But people don't think about it that way, because it's constantly surrounding us," he said.

Spirituals grew of out of Western African cultures, and were later superimposed over European harmonic systems. "When you hear a piece of jazz or a piece of rock 'n roll, it all comes back to that evolution," said Hemphill. "It's so integrated that you can't really separate it."

Spiritual music is at the heart of the Chorus's Black History Month celebration of African-American composers on Saturday, Feb. 23 in Arlington. The concert will be held at Mt. Olivet United Methodist Church, 1500 N. Glebe Road. Visit www.metchorus.org or call 703-933-2500 for ticket information.

The concert is divided into three parts "intellectually," according to Hemphill. The first segment is dedicated to spirituals that were arranged as early as 1905 to about 1949. "In my mind, I look at that as the past," he said.

The second part's theme is a look at the future. Three works from Adolphus Hailstork — a contemporary of Hemphill's at the Manhattan School of Music in New York City — will be presented. One is influenced by spirituals, and the other two are original compositions.

The third segment is about "the present," and spotlights the late Moses Hogan, who died at 45 years old in 2003. "Just about to step out into the world," said Hemphill. "He was a fabulous composer and arranger. [There's] some exciting stuff — not only intellectually exciting, but exciting to hear."

Contemporary African-American composers aren't relegated to a niche in today's choral landscape, said Hemphill.

"Once you put a name down on paper, who's going to know if you're black or white?" said Hemphill, who lives in Springfield. "I could play you something I wrote and say Stravinsky wrote it, and as long as I adhere to Stravinsky's rules, you'd never know."

THE METROPOLITAN CHORUS will have 85 members under the guidance of Hemphill at the Feb. 23 concert. "Occasionally, some of these arrangements are spread into 12 parts. And they're handling it," he said.

The Metropolitan Chorus regularly performs in venues throughout the D.C. area, including the Kennedy Center, Constitution Hall and the National Building Museum. It's also known for its collaborations — such as its upcoming show with the Heritage Signature Chorale and Alexandria Symphony Orchestra. Titled "Hailstork: Earthrise," it will focus on the music of Adolphus Hailstork as well as Smetana's "The Bartered Bride Overture" and Dvorak's "Cello Concerto." The concert is scheduled for Sunday, April 6 at 3 p.m. in the Rachel M. Schlesinger Concert Hall and Arts Center, Alexandria NOVA Campus.

For Hemphill, this season marks 31 years with The Metropolitan Chorus.

"I look at it this way: I fooled them for another year," he said, with a laugh.