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Reginald Mobley on his Grammy nod, and the Black American music that "links us together"

Countertenor Reginald Mobley, pictured in Paris in 2021.
Richard DUMAS
Countertenor Reginald Mobley, pictured in Paris in 2021.

Countertenor Reginald Mobley is acclaimed as one of the finest singers of baroque, classical and modern repertoire on both sides of the Atlantic. He is also a respected advocate for diversity in music, with a particular focus on programming. He consults with Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society as well as Apollo’s Fire, and has received a grant from the Arts and Humanities Council of the UK to further his research on lesser known composers. His latest album, BECAUSE, was released in May.

We caught up in the WRTI studios when Reggie was in town to sing Handel’s Messiah with The Philadelphia Orchestra. This is an edited transcript of our conversation.

I am so glad to welcome internationally known countertenor Reginald Mobley to the studios here at WRTI. Welcome, Reggie.

Thank you, Meg.

I'm so glad you're here. I read in your bio that you were going to be a visual artist. In fact, you had a scholarship to Davidson College. That's pretty prestigious! But here you are singing around the world. Give us the Reader's Digest. 

I was raised in Gainesville, Florida. Buchholz High School was a magnet school for drafting and architecture. My last two years of high school, I also added AP art courses. And my senior year, my brother was a freshman and he joined the chorus. You know, in the South, you can't get boys to sing in choir. So the choral teacher asked herself, well, if one of the brothers can sing, maybe the other can as well. So she had me sing for her in her office and said, okay, you are dropping one of your art courses. And so I picked up high school choir my last year.

She basically loved what I was doing. She helped me get voice lessons my senior year. She actually paid for them, and I decided that I was really falling in love with singing. So we applied for an art scholarship, which I got with Davidson. But at the last minute, we applied at another school, an HBCU in Huntsville, Alabama, Oakwood College.

Oakwood accepted my application and also offered me a matching scholarship in music. So I went to Oakwood College (now University) on a trumpet performance scholarship. I didn't touch the trumpet a single day, immediately switched to voice and started training as a tenor. Didn't really care for that. It was a little difficult, and I also missed home. So I went back to Gainesville and that's where my teacher discovered that I could sing alto, had me switch to countertenor and then everything has basically gone from there.

Amazing. A trumpet scholarship, then singing. And then you had a really wonderful and long term relationship with Seraphic Fire. How did that happen?

It actually came out of working for Tokyo Disney. I sang in a barbershop quartet at the University of Florida, Station 59, and we won the international collegiate competition. And because of that, a group that was going to Tokyo Disney found my name. I went with them to Japan where I lived in Tokyo for two and a half years, singing and acting at Tokyo Disney.

The bass Joel Diffendaffer, sang with Chanticleer earlier in his career, and Chanticleer happened to be touring in Japan at the time. And so he's like, “Well, you should come sing and meet the guys.” And there I met Ian Howell, and when Ian left Chanticleer to attend Yale, he was singing with Seraphic Fire. There happened to be a concert that he couldn't do, which were Bach motets. And he suggested to Patrick that I replace him. So Patrick and I talked. At the time, I was at Florida State. And after the weekend, he said, “Well, you should come down and sing Bach with us.” So in the spring of 2006, I joined Seraphic Fire. And that was — I mean, it was the beginning of everything.

BECAUSE was recorded in 2021. We are coming out of the pandemic. Which was a terrible time for everybody, but it was a really difficult time for singers. Talk to us about what that was like to be recording at that time.

It was kind of crazy that the way it all happened. Alpha Classics had contracted me to record an album with them in 2019. And so in 2020, after the lockdown began, I got a call from the head of Alpha Classics, Didier Martin. And I thought that, well, because of the lockdown, he's canceled the contract. We won't be doing this anymore. And he actually went the opposite direction. He doubled down completely and said, “I want to do this recording with you, but I want to try something different.” At the time, the plan had been to just record an album of spirituals and the music of Black composers of the past 300 years. But he decided that instead of partnering me with a classical pianist on the label, he wanted to partner me with a jazz pianist that he knew who'd recorded with Alpha, Baptiste Trotignon, and said, “Let's see what happens with you two together.”

Baptiste Trotignon and Reginald Mobley in concert, performing music from 'BECAUSE.'
Mark Savage
Baptiste Trotignon and Reginald Mobley in concert, performing music from 'BECAUSE.'

So over the course of the lockdown, we met over Zoom and tried playing with each other — terribly — but after a while, we figured out that what we should do is, I would send him a list, or PDFs, of various spirituals and music of Black American composers. Then he would decide which melodies he really liked, and what he thought he could do something with. And [we] came up with the idea of taking these spirituals and melodies of non-idiomatic music, art songs of Black composers, Black American composers and treat them the way we treat Cole Porter or Jerome Kern. Treat them like jazz standards — but kick the tires on these melodies and test the resilience and the beauty that exists within the creativity of the Black mind, the Black soul. And so once we saw we had an album, we met. I went to Paris for a couple of weeks in October of 2021 and masked up; you know, everything was still crazy.

Over a couple of days, we recorded the whole thing. As a matter of fact, I think in the second day of recording, Didier decided, “Well, I think we should do something more. Have you sung Marvin Gaye before? Have you sung ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine?’” I was like, “No.” I mean, I know it, obviously, but I haven't sung it. He's like, “Well, let's try it.” And so we just laid it down that day, and added that to the album. And it was just such an organic and spontaneous process. So you hardly even thought about the fact that it was coming out of such a horrible lockdown, but it was a kind of bright spot in that time.

It sounds like a meeting of two minds that were meant to come together. You touched on several things that I was going to ask about the process. It sounds like you had an idea that you wanted to focus on spirituals and music of Black Americans, but I wondered if there were pieces specifically that you were hoping to have at the heart of the recording?

Well, there are a couple of things that ended up being linchpins for both Baptiste and myself in this. The thing that I think is amazing about this album is that it's classical and it's jazz, but it's neither. It really doesn't allow itself to fit into one box. Which is part of my whole philosophy behind music, and even behind being a baroque musician, is the idea that music should not be limited and walled in. And that's something that I thought was great. So having a white French jazz pianist who didn't really know these songs or spirituals very well, hearing a jazz musician come to the font or source of his own style ....I mean, spirituals is early music. It is the beginning of jazz, but it influenced classical music as well. So much came from this that it was a great chance to see how this music could live and evolve and transform and find new life in every space.

He was particularly taken by “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” And for me, it was actually Harry Burleigh's art song, “Jean,” which I was most taken by. Because we all know, growing up as an American, as a Black American particularly, we are always singing spirituals and particularly Harry Burleigh spirituals. To hear just a general art song [with lyrics] written by Frank Stanton, a white poet and lyricist — I thought it was a beautiful song. But the moment Baptiste was inspired by what he heard in this music, which [was] French impressionism — I mean, it was Satie. And singing through that for the first time, I was just like, “Well, we could just do five albums of this.” It was things like that that anchored the album and everything just kind of flowed in and out of that.

I know that you have experience in the jazz idiom. You've done concerts with Alex Weiman, who's brilliant and has a jazz background, but really strongly embedded in early music. This was a bit different, right? When Didier proposed that as an idea, what was your first thought?

Well, my first thought was, “Well…I can't do what I’d planned. So I guess we're doing this now.” But, I mean, I loved it. I absolutely thrive on things like that, because I've grown up surrounded by jazz and gospel. It's always been a part of me. But I never thought anyone would take it seriously in the classical sphere, especially starting a relationship with a label like Alpha Classics. I thought that the typical course is: you do something traditional, like baroque music, cantatas, art songs or lieder, and then you kind of let your hair down and do something that's close to your heart. But he wanted to start where I started, and I thought that it was really thoughtful. Perhaps that's why the album has been fairly successful, is because it's honest. It's genuine. And that means the world to me, because that's what I care about, honesty and integrity within music. I can't do something I don't believe in. For him to take that leap of faith and just suggest that I do something that really hits on everything that has mattered to me in my background is just — it was wonderful, really wonderful.

This is your second Grammy nomination. American Originals was nominated as well, but it was a collaborative effort with Agave. 

And another pandemic project.

Wow. So talk to us about the differences between those two pandemic projects. 

Well, American Originals with Agave, there still was a bit of melding because we have a period string ensemble performing 19th- and 20th-century music of Black composers. Florence Price and Scott Joplin are on that album featured heavily, but arranged for a period ensemble and a countertenor. So it's the blurring of lines that I think makes these things work, at least for me.

Richard DUMAS

Because of the lockdown — and honestly, after the murder of George Floyd and all of the things that happened to innocent Black people at that time — they thought that this would be the time to really make a statement. The keyboardist Henry Lebedinsky, who is an incredible and dear friend, and I were talking about the idea that this was a time to really say something on behalf of people of color in classical music. Showing that if you look at 400 years of Western European classical music in the Americas, it didn't all come from the pen of a bewigged white person. There were women, people of color, Hispanic and Black and queer people as well. There's so much color in music, and we've whitewashed it and straight-washed it for years, for centuries. And this was the opening salvo to make way for showing that the canon is not what we have been led to believe for so long. We allowed it to be tightened and pressed in a way that we thought, “Well, it's only Beethoven, it's only Bach, it's only Haydn.”

And since then, everyone is seeing that it's actually so much more. I mean, The Philadelphia Orchestra has been championing Price. The Handel and Haydn Society, with my role as the programming consultant there, we've been really moving out of the typical rotation of the four seasons of Haydn and Mendelssohn and Bach, and doing more — adding Isabella Leonarda and Ignatius Sancho and Esteban Salas y Castro. So, all of this is to say that because of these projects that happened in the pandemic, there's a new lease on life possible for classical music by looking at the fact that there is so much more that sits behind this very narrow idea of what we’ve seen for so long that has yet to be revealed. And I think we're finally heading there.

I love what you're saying. And I want to touch on what you were talking about with spirituals and American early music. Can you talk about what you mean by “American early music”?

Well, that idea came to me with the project before American Originals with Agave, which was my third solo feature with them. The first was the music of Isabella Leonarda. The second was Peace in Our Time, and it was to be released in 2018, which was the 400-year anniversary of the beginning of the Thirty Years’ War. Somehow, there was a moment where I realized that 1618 began the Thirty Years’ War, which was a time of absolute horror in Europe, and particularly in the area we know of as Germany — and one year later, the very first slave ships hit Jamestown. The beginning of slavery in America begins just a year later.

At the same time that Schütz and Selle and the early Bachs were writing and dealing with and processing this grief and horror through music in Europe, my ancestors were in fields doing the exact same thing with music. I mean, spirituals were being sung and developed in fields at the same time as Bach was writing, as Handel was writing. It's not just early American music, but it is early music, period. And it very much belongs and deserves the same respect as Bach and Handel. I reject the very notion of ethnomusicology where for so long, things like that have been more or less pushed in that direction. But truly, even outside of what spirituals led to in America — with jazz, barbershop, ragtime, house music — it also influenced Dvořák. It influenced Delius. It influenced Stravinsky. So much of classical music was very much influenced by this music as well.

And so I think it's important to show that not only has this music always had a seat at the table of the Western classical canon, there is a potential to see the connection that exists between all of us. Because at the end of the day, when you look at these spirituals and the feeling and the pain and the processing behind that, and look at the same thing when you sing J.C. Bach’s “Ach, dass ich Wassers gnug hätte”, and many of the works of Schütz, they were still processing pain and grief. They were doing things that link us emotionally, beyond styles, beyond geographical places. We're all still human. And so because of this, because of this music, it links me to Bach as much as it links me to George Walker or Scott Joplin. It links you in the same way. It links us together. And not just us now and us before, but to people that come after us. This is the backstop. This is the guardian of culture and humanity that exists in the arts, and music specifically. And I think that's something that I really want to show, at least at this point forward, through my career.

As a young violinist, Meg Bragle regularly listened to her local classical music station and loved calling in on Saturday mornings to request pieces, usually by Beethoven. The hosts were always kind and played her requests (often the Fifth Symphony), fostering a genuine love for radio.