Q&A with director of Tubman’s artist in residence, the Nathaniel Dett Chorale

In this exclusive interview with Brainstorm, Brainerd Blyden-Taylor, founder and artistic director of the world-renowned Nathaniel Dett Chorale, reflects on the past two decades of the Chorale and discusses this group’s role as artist in residence at the Tubman Institute.

Since 2016, there has been a musical luminary in our midst at York University: Brainerd Blyden-Taylor, artistic director of the Nathaniel Dett Chorale. This group is serving as artists in residence at the Harriet Tubman Institute for Research on the Global Migrations of African Peoples.

Brainerd Blyden-Taylor

Twenty years ago, this visionary musician and educator founded the chorale, named after Ontario-born Black musician Robert Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943). The 21-person group, dedicated to Afrocentric music of all styles, including classical, spiritual, gospel, jazz, folk and blues, has since become known across the globe.

Blyden-Taylor sat down with Brainstorm to reflect on the past 20 years with the chorale, discuss the plans for the 20th anniversary next month and profile the group’s role as artists in residence.

Q: What are some highlights of the chorale’s achievements to date?

A: One of the earliest highlights was the launch of the Mandela Children’s Fund at the SkyDome (now Rogers Centre). When the chorale was performing on stage, alongside a children’s choir that I was also leading, Nelson Mandela pulled some of the singers out of the choir and started dancing with them. I thought, “Oh my God, what a way to get started!” That was an amazing moment.

Nathaniel Dett

Nathaniel Dett (Source: Wikipedia)

Another high point: one of the first things we were booked to do was open the Niagara Performing Arts Series in Niagara Falls, which is where Nathaniel Dett was born. The series was held in Dett’s high school. We had the great pleasure of finding, by chance, one of Dett’s grandchildren. She came up from Staten Island. So, we did a program of Dett’s choral music … in the presence of his granddaughter… in the high school that he had attended.

Another highlight was performing, a cappella, at the convocation for Archbishop Desmond Tutu that the University of Toronto had bestowed upon him, in the Great Hall at Hart House. We were singing Dett’s “Listen to the Lambs” while the dignitaries came in. It was challenging to time the music with the procession. Well, at the exact moment that Archbishop Tutu – a little Black man in bright red robes – turned the corner to walk down the aisle, the soprano sang, “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd, and carry the young lambs in his bosom,” and the sun shone through the stained-glass windows! The hairs stood up all over me. You could practise that forever and never hit that mark again.

Q: What are your plans for the 20th anniversary?

A: We opened the 20th anniversary season with a concert at York on October 25, which commemorated the 75th anniversary of Dett’s death. Pianist Dr. Clipper Erickson played the Eight Bible Vignettes of Dett. We also introduced Dr. Stephen Newby, a professor of composition at Seattle Pacific University. We have asked him to be composer in residence of The Nathaniel Dett Chorale for our 20th anniversary season. On November 4, we worked with my church, All Saints Kingsway, do to Eternal Light, a requiem mass written by Howard Goodall. Our Christmas concert, An Indigo Christmas…Black Virgin – great Joy was also held at York on December 5.

Our 20th gala anniversary concert is set for February 13, 2019 at Koerner Hall. It will premiere Dr. Newby’s work ‘Hosea’, as well as a reunion of NDC alumni singing favourite Spirituals. We are hoping that Jessye Norman will be present. The Nathaniel Dett Chorale will also be performing at the Glenn Gould Foundation Award Gala to honour Jessye Norman on February 20, 2019 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. The final concert of the season is also scheduled for Korner Hall on May 29, 2019.

Nathaniel Dett Chorale

Q: What is the Chorale’s role as artists in residence at the Tubman Institute?  

A: This role is still evolving. I have a grand vision. My mother often said, “I am stepping out in faith, believing.”

I am grateful to Dr. Michele Johnson, the past director of the Tubman Institute. We feel very privileged and delighted to have made this connection. It is my hope that we can help to expand the vision that she had on performing diaspora. We are looking forward to working closely with the new director, Dr. Gertrude Mianda.

In my role, I am jointly responsible, with Abubacar Fofana, for one of the research cohorts: Expressive Cultures and Belief Systems, part of the Tubman Talks series. Ultimately, I want to endow a Chair in Afrocentric Choral Music in R. Nathaniel Dett’s name. That’s part of the grand vision.

Q: What can you say about the impact of the Tubman Institute?

A: The Tubman Institute at York has really had an impact. When it was first formed, it was more around the slave trade and slave trade routes, and that made sense given who Harriet Tubman was, but Dr. Johnson saw there was an opportunity to widen the vision of the Institute and to expand around Africa and its diasporas.

The initial impact was external to Canada, but as the institute has been widening its scope, it is becoming better known, both on campus and across Canada. The chorale helps to do that, and to open some windows on what the Tubman Institute is, does and still can do.

Q: Can you give an example of how the Tubman Institute and York University have supported your work?

A: In the summer of 2017 we launched The Toronto North Star Festival. We collaborated with the Tubman Institute and the Yale Alumni Chorus to present a festival that took an historic look at the heritage of the Underground Railroad and did so through a uniquely artistic and critical perspective. The attendees got to experience more than just music and dance, participating in an Interrogation of the North Star symposium as part of the Tubman Institute’s Summer Institute.

These are all wonderful ways in which the Tubman Institute, and York, have supported us. We also wave the flag of both the Tubman Institute and of York University in our marketing and concertising both locally and abroad.

To learn more about the Nathaniel Dett Chorale, visit the website. To read about the Tubman Institute, visit the website.

To learn more about Research & Innovation at York, follow us at @YUResearch, watch the York Research Impact Story and see the snapshot infographic.

By Megan Mueller, senior manager, research communications, Office of the Vice-President Research & Innovation, York University, muellerm@yorku.ca