The Oratorio Chorale’s illuminating “Amazing Grace” program, which it unveiled on Friday evening at the Episcopal Church of St. Mary in Falmouth, was strikingly different from anything I’ve heard from this ensemble over the past couple of years.

It wasn’t that any individual element of the concert was entirely new. The program, which the choir repeated twice on Saturday at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Brunswick, was devoted to spirituals – but lots of choirs sing those. There were trenchant, context-setting readings from the works of W.E.B. Du Bois, Frederick Douglass and others, but that’s been done, too – including, recently, at the University of Southern Maine’s fascinating “Becoming American” program at Hannaford Hall last October. Even the theatricality that Emily Isaacson and her singers brought to the performances, with the singers moving through the aisles, is seen regularly, not least by the Oratorio Chorale’s all-women chamber chorus, Sweetest in the Gale.

But add to these touches the involvement of the Abyssinian Meeting House – a 19th-century African-American church on Newbury Street in Portland that was an important Underground Railroad site – and a deeply informative program essay on the history of the spiritual, by Judith Casselberry, an associate professor of African Studies at Bowdoin College (who also delivered the between-pieces readings), and you have a program that is much more than an evening’s entertainment. Even if you thought you knew something about this music, you left the concert knowing a great deal more.

You got the feeling, from Isaacson’s opening comments, that the program took its final form as happy accident, or the sort that turns up during the research for a project. Only six months ago, she said, she was unaware of the Abyssinian Meeting House. That suggests that the program, which was announced several months earlier, was originally a conventional spirituals concert. Isaacson’s introduction was followed by a short talk about the meeting house by the president of its board, Pamela Cummings, and a concise overview of its educational programs by James Ford, another board member.

Except for a framing prelude and postlude, in the form of Patrick Dupre Quigley’s arrangement of “Over My Head,” the program essentially followed the stylistic history charted in Casselberry’s essay, starting with spirituals in the folk style common before Emancipation, moving through what Casselberry called “concertized” versions (that is, polished editions prepared for the concert hall, rather than the more ebullient, free-spirited versions originally heard in churches), and finally, a group of 20th-century arrangements for Gospel choir (which recapture some of the freedom of the church versions).

Most of the works, and their arrangements (including classic settings by Quigley, Moses Hogan and William L. Dawson) were familiar, and the choir sang them with verve and infectious energy.

The “folk” spirituals, like “This Little Light of Mine” and “Wade in the Water” for example, and even some of the “concertized” arrangements, like Dawson’s contrapuntal edition of “Ezekiel Saw de Wheel,” benefited from a vigorous approach in which the choir replaced the usual constraints of concert formality with swaying, clapping, moving through the aisles, and encouraging audience participation.

Yet the concert’s most sublime moments were the solo performances, and collaborations with the choir, by guest singer Reginald Mobley. A superb countertenor whose usual repertory includes Baroque works and music theater, Mobley sang the music with a compelling  combination of the polish (including a light, tightly controlled vibrato) he would bring to Handel, and the ornamentation you might hear a Gospel singer bring to this music.

Soprano Mary Sullivan, the choir’s artist in residence, contributed fine solos as well, as did a handful of singers from the choir. And Scott Wheatley played the artful piano accompaniments to several pieces.

Far be it from me to suggest that the Oratorio Chorale abandon its usual mission in favor of concerts in this style. But there isn’t an ensemble in Portland – or anywhere, really – that couldn’t re-energize itself, and its audience, by periodically jettisoning the supposed rules of classical concert presenting, and offering programs as inventive, enlightening and moving as this one.

Allan Kozinn is a former music critic and culture writer for The New York Times who lives in Portland. He can be contacted at:
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