AMERICAN countertenor Reginald Mobley will sing with the Monteverdi Choir at King Charles III’s Coronation Ceremony tomorrow (6/5/2023) in London, ahead of his June 13 performance in York.
In his last interview on Wednesday before resting his voice for his 9am Royal engagement, opening the pre-ceremony concert at Westminster Abbey, the Florida-born baroque, classical and modern singer spoke on the phone to CharlesHutchPress.
“I’m just one of the gang, being part of the celebration, singing with the Monteverdi Choir,” he said before crossing the Atlantic from California. “No, I can’t say what we’re singing! I’m on my best behaviour!
“It’s going to be an incredible event, an incredible occasion. I’ve been fortunate, through Sir John Eliot Gardiner [the choir’s founder], to have met King Charles before, and I’ve welcomed his involvement in music, organic farming and highlighting the climate crisis. I’m happy to be involved this weekend.
“But for the past ten-eleven years I’ve lived in Boston, the cradle of the American Revolution!”
Reginald, or Reggie as he likes to be called, will be heading north to York on June 13 to perform with French jazz pianist Baptiste Trotignon at the National Centre for Early Music as part of the 2023 York Festival of Ideas.
The focus will be on this month’s debut solo album, Because, a selection of American spiritual songs performed by Mobley with Trotignon, set for release on Alpha Classics on May 26.
“Spirituals are true hymns to resilience, whose beauty and strength of both lyrics and music symbolise hope and faith in humanity,” said Reginald. “This project’s aim is to do justice to this musical heritage and to honour its past performers.”
Previously, Reginald had recorded and performed with the Monteverdi Choir & Orchestra for ten years, along with the Orchestra of St Luke’s, Atlanta Baroque Orchestra, Early Music Vancouver, Portland Baroque Orchestra and Early Music Seattle.
He has performed too with Baroque ensemble Apollo’s Fire and is a regular guest with Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, Washington Bach Consort and Seraphic Fire. Latterly he recorded American Originals, a collection of spirituals, with Agave Baroque, earning a Grammy nomination in 2022.
For his new recording venture, Didier Martin, head of Alpha Classics, suggested Reginald should partner with a solo pianist “as he knew I liked wild ideas”. “During the pandemic we talked about various ideas and even tried things out together online and got this idea to do something new,” Reginald said.
Reginald collected scores of slave songs and Negro spirituals from the American colonies, born from the pain and tribulations of African people deprived of fundamental rights. Inspired by Old Testament stories of the Israelites’ flight from Egypt, the songs express sorrow, grief, but joy and desire for freedom too.
A hymn to resilience and a symbol of hope and faith in humanity, the spirituals have influenced popular music, from ragtime, barbershop, jazz and gospel to blues, rock, techno and electronic music.
To grant the genre its true place in music history and to honour its original interpreters, Mobley and Trotignon have collaborated on a newly curated programme of songs written by black composers such as HT Burleigh, Florence Price and J Rosamond Johnson, alongside their own improvisational arrangements on original texts.
“I said to Baptiste, ‘don’t try them out the way they are but reinterpret them with your jazz piano and treat them as jazz standards, as all this music comes from slave songs’. Baptiste, being a French pianist, had no connection to these songs the way I did, but we realised it would work really well and Didier loved it,” said Reginald.
“So, in October 2021 I showed up in Paris, and between performances on an opera tour, we recorded the album there and the project has really taken on a life of its own. It’s an interesting exploration of music that often doesn’t get this exposure at home or abroad.”
As well as releasing such a ground-shaking album, Reginald is heavily involved in social and political activism in Boston, particularly in responding to the “massive inequality regarding race, gender, and sexuality within the classical music industry”.
“Slowly I’m starting to push that in Britain, where there’s a lot going on, which is really inspiring and I’m a bit jealous of that, to be honest,” he said.
“We spend so much time trying to find the magic bullet to kill this spectre of racism, but we have to find a better way to do that. Facing the problem of racism in America, we have a country that has tried to move on with half measures, but the problem has still not been solved, and there has been such anger on both sides.”
As a queer black man, Reginald has found himself “living in both worlds and seeing rejection from both worlds as gay culture has absorbed black music and black speech and yet there was this weird reluctance to get involved in the debate about racism,” he said.
“There are so many people who will refuse to acknowledge the racism problem but will listen to Marvin Gaye’s music, or watch the Black Panther movies, or eat fried chicken. But I honestly believe music has a role to play in solving the issue, though I don’t think of musicians as being essential in the world in the way that doctors and nurses are.
“But we have a role to play through the arts in general. We are the guardian of empathy and compassion. If we can get people to stop and listen, to open their hearts through music, then maybe change can happen.”
Reflecting on bringing the songs of Burleigh, Price and Johnson into the spotlight, Reginald said: “It’s sad that we don’t give more attention to the roots of these songs, but what’s important now is to have the conversation about why these things should never happen again, so that we solve the ignorance surrounding racism.”
As a singer of Early music, Reginald said “we need to realise that there is so much that connects us”, citing the German music that emerged from the horror of the Thirty Years’ War, when only a year after the war started in 1618, the first slave ships started landing and “our path began”.
“Handel was writing his music, processing grief and reacting to tragedy, at the same time as we were singing in the fields,” he noted. “How sad for us to have our issues for so long and that it’s taking so long for change to come.”
Raised by his grandparents in Gainesville, Florida, in the American Deep South, Reginald first sang in church: the routine “origin story”, he said. “My background is in gospel music. My grandparents wouldn’t allow classical music in the house as there was this belief that ‘it’s not for non-whites’, and yet we’ve always had music in our lives.
“But growing up as a very poor boy in the Deep South, this is in no way the path I would have expected to be walking in my life, and no matter what, I’m still going to be this African-American guy representing those who bled and died so that I can make music freely.”
Reginald concluded: “I am not myself if I don’t have hope that things are changing. I always believe in moving forward and that if we keep on the path, things may change.
“I may not see the consequences but the idea that someone will do so later is what fills me with hope. That’s what we should always be thinking about: that it’s not about us now but that those who come after us will live better life than we do. That’s when the barriers of sexual orientation, race and gender can be eroded.”
York Festival of Ideas presents Reginald Mobley & Baptiste Trotignon, National Centre for Early Music, June 13, 7.30pm. Dr Matthew Williams, from the University of York music department, will give an illustrated talk from 6.30pm to 7pm and lead a short Q&A with the musicians after the concert. Box office: 01904 658338 or ncem.co.uk.
REGINALD Mobley and Baptiste Trotignon will appear at the BBC Proms at Sage Gateshead on July 23, performing American spiritual songs such as Nobody Knows The Trouble I’ve Seen, My Lord What A Morning, Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child, Steal Away, Great Campmeetin, By And By, Save Me Lord, and There Is A Balm In Gilead. The 2pm programme will include three Florence Price works: Because, Resignation and Sunset. Box office: sagegateshead.com.
Did you know?
REGINALD Mobley’s first professional work was in musical theatre, and while working in Japan as a singer/actor for Tokyo Disney, he performed cabaret shows of gospel, jazz and torch songs in jazz clubs around Tokyo.
Did you know too?
IN Europe, Reginald has performed with City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Orchester Wiener Akademie, Balthasar Neumann Chor & Ensemble, Bach Society in Stuttgart and Holland Baroque Orchestra.