Robert Sims

South Side baritone Robert Sims

One of the unexpected advantages of the COVID-19 pandemic is that concerts you might never have attended have suddenly become available to you in new ways. Many events around the country and around the world have been made available for free via various streaming methods. One of the biggest hits with classical and opera fans when the pandemic struck was the free streaming operas from the Met, but organizations large and small have contributed to a cornucopia of music on the Internet.

Local baritone and South Sider Robert Sims has given a few recent performances of note, which have been archived and are now available on YouTube. Last week, a new and fascinating performance of Sims with pianist Paul Sanchez was released. It features the work of Shawn Okpebholo (b. 1981) a composer with wide interests and influences, who is on the faculty of the Wheaton College Conservatory of Music just outside of Chicago.

Okpebholo is the son of an African-American mother and Nigerian father. His music has reflected his heritage, with African influences in melody and rhythm as well as a fine ear to re-interpret spirituals. He learned music in an unusual way: As a child, he participated in Salvation Army youth club events in Lexington, Kentucky, where he played in the church choir and band (playing brass, as did his sister).

When he was 14 he performed his own arrangement of “Be Still for the Presence of the Lord” at church. Composer James Curnow heard him and began giving Okpebholo weekly composition lessons.

Among the composer’s particular interests are spirituals and hymns and he has written a large number of what he calls “re-imaginations” of these. The new Sims-Sanchez recording is of one of these re-imaginations: “I’ve Never Felt Such Love in my Soul Befo’/What Wondrous Love is This?” which Okpebholo arranged in 2018.

This is passionate and exciting music, which the composer makes both familiar as well as modern, simple yet powerful.

Robert Sims is a masterful performer and grabs your attention from the very beginning with a vocal line dark and mysterious in color and mood. Sims gives us anguish and pain while Paul Sanchez offers a misty piano line.

Works like this benefit from the storytelling abilities of a baritone like Sims. He uses his rumbling and resonant low notes to great effect, never pushing but rather embracing the simplicity of the vocal line. Sanchez provides accompaniment that is fluid yet full of muscle. Both of them slowly and expertly build the tension and drama of the music. Okpebholo has deftly combined the two spirituals into one and the performers understood this beautifully.

The performance was part of a Wheaton College theology conference entitled “Balm in Gilead: A Theological Dialogue with Marilynne Robinson.” Technology and pandemic restrictions seemed to have ensured that those of us keeping warm at home can still see and hear this fine music. You can view the video on YouTube by searching for Robert Sims.

Sims was also the featured performer late last month in a concert by the Tabernacle Choir (formerly known as the Mormon Tabernacle Choir) and Orchestra at Temple Square in Salt Lake City, Utah. The choir’s weekly radio show has been broadcast since 1929, making it one of the oldest running radio programs in the world. These concerts are also posted as videos on YouTube.

Sims appears twice on the program as soloist, acquitting himself marvelously. First he took on “My Good Lord’s Done Been Here” with great aplomb. His singing was lilting and stylish. You might not think that Salt Lake City is the center of gospel, but Sims brought zip and fervor to the music, making it infectious, exciting and very satisfying.

The Chicago baritone was also the soloist for “Don’t You Let Nobody Turn You 'Round”. The string introduction perfectly set the stage for Sims’s masterful vocal solo. His sound was sinuous and silky with lovely diction. His high notes were warm and his middle register carried force and confidence. This was toe-tapping music sung with elegance and fervor.

The concert was a mix of music and performing groups, including a solo on the Tabernacle’s organ (which has 11,623 pipes) as well as a performance with bells. The choir was light and cheerful for “Oh, Peter, Go Ring Them Bells,” and sweet with “This Little Light of Mine”. There is a brief spoken word section which calls for us to, “Love one another. Treat all with dignity. Share your blessings with the less fortunate. And give special attention to those who are sick in body and spirit.” This section draws heavily on the work of the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.

The concert closed with a choral performance of “Lift Every Voice and Sing”, often called “The Black National Anthem”. It was first a poem written by NAACP leader James Weldon Johnson (1871–1938) and then set to music by his brother John Rosamond Johnson (1873–1954) in 1899. A choir of 500 school children at the segregated Stanton School (Jacksonville, Florida), where James Weldon Johnson was principal, first performed the anthem in February of 1900. The Tabernacle Choir’s singing was joyous and engaging and it made for an inspiring show ender.

This charming video is available for free on YouTube on the “Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square” channel.

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