Ronald Campbell, a native of Macon, is the artist in residence at the Marian Anderson Historical Foundation in south New Jersey. The path to this position started in his hometown where his grandmother, the late Rosa Lee Bryant, and his voice teacher at the former Macon State College, the late Jack Hutcheson, nurtured the talent they heard when he sang.
Campbell is a bass baritone with a voice that filled the sanctuary on Feb. 11 for the monthly Music and the Arts series at Vineville United Methodist Church. Many of Campbell’s family members attended the concert for his third visit to Macon; Betty Hutcheson, widow of Campbell’s voice teacher came to hear her husband’s former student and can vividly recall the teacher’s ambitious expectations for his former student.
When he left Macon State, Campbell attended Concordia College in Bronxville, New York, where he received the bachelor of music degree in vocal performance; he completed the masters of fine arts degree from Howard University in Washington, D. C.
His career has taken him from the classroom to working with nationally acclaimed conductors and accompanists and to the stage of the Metropolitan Repertory Opera in Washington to perform in “Il Travatore” as Count Di Luna. In Seattle, he was cast in the musicals, “Ragtime,” by Stephen Flaherty and in “High Society,” by Cole Porter.
Campbell was accompanied on piano by Susan McDuffie, who also has been responsible for launching musical careers during the years she has been a piano instructor. The combined virtuosity of Campbell and McDuffie could be compared to haute cuisine paired with the finest wine. McDuffie’s versatility on the piano is well matched to the wide range of dramatic and operatic roles played by Campbell.
Program of African-American spirituals with a bonus
For the program last Sunday, Campbell selected nine songs from the collection of work by songwriter Harry T. Burleigh, one from the works of Hall Johnson and the last from Margaret Bonds. Burleigh, who died in 1949, was also a baritone, and one of the first composers of Negro spirituals to write the music to his lyrics in classical form, making it possible for the songs to be played by professional musicians and to be sung by classically trained vocalists.
Campbell opened the concert with Burleigh’s serious spiritual “I Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray,” and had some fun with “Oh Didn’t It Rain,” another Burleigh selection, referring to the dreary rainy Sunday (which in no way diminished the attendance at the concert). Many of Burleigh’s songs were familiar to the audience, especially “Wade in Da Water,” the cadence of which makes you want to sing along.
“Witness,” the one song from the choral music written by Johnson, is another familiar spiritual that, although the audience was polite enough not to sing along, inspired a lot of lip synching that could be witnessed (pardon the pun). Johnson, a native Georgian, began his musical career playing the piano and the violin, which he pursued as a student at the Knox Institute, a preparatory school founded after the Civil War in Athens for the children of former slaves. He graduated from Allen University in Columbia, South Carolina, and continued to hone his skills as a classical musician at Atlanta University and at the Juilliard School, among others.
After ending the scheduled program with a resounding rendition of “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hand,” arranged by Bonds, Campbell and McDuffie received a standing ovation which brought them back to perform not one, but two more selections for the enthusiastic audience. The classic “Ol’ Man River” sounded as if it had been written for Campbell, the slow rumble of the music resonating with his rich baritone voice.
In a complete departure from the spirit of the afternoon concert, Campbell and McDuffie presented a brief selection or “scene” from George Frideric Handel’s oratorio “Messiah,” giving the audience a sample of the range of Campbell’s talent. At the end of the concert, the guest artist, impressed with what he has seen of Macon’s rejuvenation since his departure, said he would be visiting his hometown more often, a promise we trust he will keep.
Katherine Walden is a freelance writer and interior designer in Macon. Contact her at 478-742-2224 or email@example.com.
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