On the occasion of the Angeles Chorale‘s opening of their 40th season, a program entitled, “Unbridled Joy, an evening of Gospel and More!” it became an experience with emphasis on the “More”.
Under the direction of conductor and artistic director John Sutton, a reprisal of Robert Rays’s Gospel Mass was the featured program event, after first giving a nod to American folk melody, spirituals and a bit of more traditional gospel. It was a solid recipe. Take a dedicated fan base, a large choir, add in a six-piece instrumental combo and serve it within a known, crowd-pleasing concert program. The surprise guest, however, was the turn-of-the-century, Southern Bible Belt atmosphere created by the late summer evening and one of the hottest spells of the year, in an architecturally traditional church without air conditioning. The women glowed, and programs did double duty as bearers of information and fans.
Beginning the concert, the chorale circled and sang from within the audience, with the classic 1960 Shaw/Parker arrangement of Wondrous Love. Continuing to the altar, they began a set of spiritual arrangements: “Ain’t Got Time to Die” by Hall Johnson; “Lord, I know I’ve Been Changed” by Bruce More; “Here’s One” by Mark Hayes; and “City Called Heaven” by Josephine Peolinitz.
There was no intermission, but the program was broken up by an Emmy Award-winning video of the life and tragically unexpected death of Justin Carr as a result of an undiagnosed heart condition: idiopathic hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. Family friends of Sutton, Carr’s parents, family and friends were there, in part to promote the Justin Carr Wants World Peace Foundation, which supports arts education and promotes awareness of childhood heart disease, among other activities. The presentation also drew attention to the chorale’s strong community focus.
The final concert presentation was featured Ray’s Gospel Mass, drawing its text mostly from he Catholic liturgy, with some textual liberties. Before the Sanctus, there were extended instrumental solos, as in the jazz tradition. Of special note were the guitarist, Moses Sun, who garnered a rousing cheer from the crowd, Bryan Taylor for combining musicality with athleticism to create an aural drumming frenzy, and Greg Mathieson on the Hammond B-3. The organ lives at the heart of gospel music, aurally iconic the way a piano is to Schubert Lieder. It is perhaps as Roland Barthes said in his book of essays,”Mythologies”, “…a distilled ikon made memory…”. The culminating effect of this hot, humid summer evening was one of being transported to another time and place.
Gospel music was neither born of comfort, privilege or academia. It is song rooted in experience, serving our human need to express and communicate, and that is where its particular charm lies. Soloist Eyvonne Williams is both singer and writer, and conveyed the spirit and joy inherent in the music as a consummate storyteller, with a voice that was one long, fluid ornament of expression. She told a deeply, personally felt story using her voice as the instrument, including word play and vocalise in her vocabulary, to bring us into the full embrace of her song.
Darnell Abraham has a classically trained voice, and it showed. The tone was consistent, placed always forward, and beautiful. What was missing was the ease, the ornamentation, the sheer vocal power that comes from declaiming an emotion with full conviction, honesty and no fear. Near the end of the concert, near the end of one of his solos, he attempted some ornamentation, but he did not fully own it enough to give it away.
The chorale had all eyes on the Sutton with their music memorized. Bodies swayed, vocal clarity was consistent and joy was radiantly conveyed. On occasion, during the Mass, Sutton would let the instrumentalists and singers continue without a lot of direction, trusting that everyone was listening. The audience was listening too, and participated with rhythmic hand clapping and spontaneous applause.
The Azusa Pacific Chorale served as plants in the audience for an effective rendering of the “Credo”, after which they joined the chorale onstage for the remainder of the program. For the last encore, pianist Byron Smith led the whole group in the final hurrah for an already enthusiastic, feel-good crowd. The concert fulfilled every expectation of a season opener.