Pillbox

CFA grad performs traditional gospel

On February 12, Carnegie Mellon welcomed a celebrated alumnus back to the campus in one of many events honoring Black History Month. François S. Clemmons, a tenor vocalist of international renown, performed a selection of traditional gospel songs in Kresge Performance Hall in the evening. Clemmons was accompanied on piano by his good friend and long-time collaborator George Matthew. Both Clemmons and George currently teach at Middlebury College in Vermont.

Taking the stage in a flowing blue traditional African robe—his hands glittering with gold rings—Clemmons cut a majestic and dignified figure. Towards the end of the concert, though, he complained, "this thing is just too hot," and nonchalantly slipped the voluminous outer robe off, finishing the performance in a less-ornate outfit of pants and shirt. "Don't tell the designer," Clemmons warned the audience. "He wants me to wear these together."

Clemmons' career has been one of many different musical influences and roles. Our generation may recognize him as the friendly police officer on the Emmy and Peabody Award-winning television program, Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, a role that Clemmons created and starred in. One of the world's foremost gospel music singers, Clemmons is the director and founder of the world-famous "Harlem Spiritual Ensemble," whose mission is stated as both preservation and growth of African-American spirituals. Stylistically, Clemmons has thrived in the musical genres of opera and musical theater as well as gospel. According to the concert program, Clemmons even experimented in rock music as a young man.

A unifying theme in Clemmons' rich and diverse career, however, has been his devotion to the community. Clemmons began his musical career in his family's church and has organized numerous outreach and educational programs. In his travels, Clemmons does not confine his teaching simply to musical techniques, though he is certainly talented enough to do so. Rather, Clemmons works to fuse civil rights activism with his music, honoring such figures as Martin Luther King and Roland Hayes, a musician often hailed as America's first black classical artist.

In concert, Clemmons spoke little between pieces. However, his singing voice expressed a range of complex emotions that made explanations of the songs' meanings all but unnecessary. Sweeping his hands dramatically up to the ceiling, sometimes staring arrestingly into the audience, Clemmons had a stage presence big enough for an entire choir. Changing from joy to pain to raw yearning to grief, Clemmons' vocal expression paid honor to the African-American experience—and struggle—through song. Concertgoers also witnessed the broad range of Clemmons' stylistic vocal mastery; Clemmons incorporated musical theater and classical technique into the rich framework of traditional gospel.

Clemmons did, however, briefly address the personal significance gospel has for him. "I travel a lot," he said, "and although it's truly wonderful to be immersed in other cultures—to learn their music and experience their lifestyles —there is something about singing this music and being back in America that is very, very good." Clemmons went on to credit his mother and grandmother for teaching him gospel songs when he was very young.

Junior Chrystal Williams participated in a master class Clemmons gave to CMU voice majors. Williams said that Clemmons emphasized the universality of the spiritual as an art form—and as a form of personal comfort and relief. Even though the spiritual has a very specific past, originating in the pre-Civil War south, Clemmons believes that everyone can sing spirituals and benefit from their beauty and power. Williams also said that Clemmons believed in knowing the history behind any music that you sing: "If I was going to sing an aria, I would have to learn its background. It's the same with gospel. That's one reason why Clemmons sings so powerfully and movingly—he knows and respects the history of these songs." Chrystal added that his training certainly shows. "He can float those notes," she said, "he can get[ITAL]way[ITAL] up there and hit the high ones. It's impressive."