Saturday, May 25, 2013

Baltimore Sun: 'Great Day': New life for old music of black churches

Marco K. Merrick

The following article in The Baltimore Sun is enhanced by the expertise of our friend Dr. Eric Conway, Director of the Morgan State University Choir:

The Baltimore Sun

Community Concert Choir revives neglected spirituals, anthems

By Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun
6:17 PM EDT, May 24, 2013
As afternoon light tried to filter through the thick, stained-glass windows of Sharp Street United Methodist Church last weekend, Marco K. Merrick pounded out the bass line of a spiritual on a raw-sounding piano, singing along in a raspy voice: "Great day, the righteous marching. Great day, God's going to build up Zion's walls." From the tightly packed pews in front of him, basses and baritones of the Community Concert Choir of Baltimore picked up the vocal line tentatively at first, but gained in confidence with each measure.

That passage settled, Merrick started over, this time bringing the rest of the chorus — more than 130 strong — into the march-tempo music. He rarely called out instructions now, speaking with his hands instead. With one slowly out-stretched gesture, he generated a terrific crescendo from the ensemble. "That is delicious sounding," Merrick shouted.

For two break-less hours, the choir continued to rehearse for its annual spring concert, which takes place Sunday afternoon. This one commemorates the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, but, in effect, all of the group's performances honor African-American history. The Community Concert Choir, which the Baltimore-born Merrick founded in 2010, specializes in what he considers to be neglected music, the traditional spirituals, hymns, anthems and gospel songs of African-American churches.

"In our culture, as with many cultures, the story is not being told," Merrick, 50, said. "It's not being shared with the new generation. In many black churches today, it's all about current, current. There are ministers saying they only want to do new stuff to get young people to come to church. Some churches don't even have hymnals anymore."

The program for the choir's spring concert includes several selections from those old hymn books, such as "Lift Up Your Heads," "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross," and "Holy Art Thou," an anthem based on a well-known aria from an 18th-century opera by Handel.

Music by classical composers is also part of the choir's songbook, including excerpts from Haydn's oratorio "The Creation." Sunday's program features the "Inflammatus" from Rossini's "Stabat Mater,"a piece that was in the repertoire of the great soprano Leontyne Price (one of Merrick's musical heroes).

Gospel music, which became a pronounced part of worship service in black churches during the 20th century, has a place as well in the Community Concert Choir's programs. But, in this case, it's vintage. "We sing the classic gospel of Thomas Dorsey and those who followed him," Merrick said, referring to black gospel artists who emerged in the 1920s and '30s and continued to influence the genre for several decades. "It's very old-school, and some people today don't even know it."

Contemporary gospel style places the emphasis on the contemporary. "Hip-hop has changed gospel music in a great way," said Eric Conway, director of the famed Morgan State University Choir. Early black churches in this country adopted much of the music of white churches, and sang many hymns in common for generations. But one genre emerged solely from the African-American culture
spirituals, with their deep roots in slavery.

In addition to "Great Day," the Community Concert Choir program will include such standards as "His Name So Sweet," "I'm on My Way to Freedom Land" and "Ride the Chariot." "In the African-American churches today, anthems and spirituals are often not performed the way they once were," Conway said. "There is a generation of older folk who remember singing these songs when they were young. They're very nostalgic for them. I applaud Marco for creating this choir so
they can sing this music again."

Janet Frazier West, an alto and charter member of the ensemble, exemplifies Conway's point. "I love singing the old hymns people haven't heard for years. It's very emotional for me," said West, 64. "I grew up in a church whey they sang all of this music."

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