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"Black Gospel is Not Like Haydn"

“Hi, Amanda. I have an idea for a project at church, and I wanted to see what you might think of it.” I had heard my friend and seminary colleague Amanda Montague sing as part of the Richmond Symphony Richard Smallwood concert in January. I knew that we needed a sizable musical offering for Good Friday, and I wanted something that was the opposite of Haydn. I pitched the idea of hiring a group of Black gospel singers to sing

with the GPPC choir, covering the solo material and collaborating with us for the choral work. This was late in the afternoon on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, of all days. First thing Tuesday morning I had an enthusiastic reply from Amanda. By Tuesday noon she had assembled a Richmond Gospel Dream Choir. In less than 24 hours the project had developed an energy all its own. There was no turning back.

We white church musicians have a kind of Black musical pyramid in our heads. At the bottom of the pyramid are the people we would call Black composers, like David Hurd and Adolphus Hailstork and Margaret Bonds. This is important entry level stuff. The

next step up might be old arrangements of Spirituals, like the venerable Burleigh “My Lord, What a Mornin’” or Dawson “There Is a Balm in Gilead.” Maybe some of us take another step up to the newer arrangements of Spirituals by Moses Hogan, Rosephanye Powell, or M. Roger Holland. Climbing further up the pyramid is Black Gospel, a genre that most of us find to be intimidating. So, most of us just avoid it. Maybe we feel like this is a way of respecting Black Gospel, like we don’t want to screw up something we don’t understand.

Black Gospel is not like Haydn. At times, it’s the complete opposite. Sometimes the musical phrases stomp on the musical rule books. Breathe in the middle of a sentence? Yes. Breathe in the middle of a word? Also yes. Breathe in the middle of a word after intentionally not breathing at a comma? Yup. What do the basses sing? The bottom note of the three. What if the bottom note gets too high? You still sing it. Can I sing it an octave lower? We’re not going to be that choir. Slide into the note from below? You bet. Was that enough of a slide? Not even close. 

But, good God, the music is beautiful. With Smallwood you can listen to his renditions of his songs, recorded with his own Gospel Dream Choir. The music on the page is just a basic blueprint. “Trust Me” begins with five simple words, sung at the pace of an oak tree’s growth. “I…will…be…with you.” For each one, we start a whole step below and slide towards the correct note while nudging the dynamic level enough that you can hear it without making it a caricature. It’s hard. It’s best to put the music down and just listen to what you are singing, to what we are singing. 

Which brings us to the we. To say that we are in absolute awe of the guest singers

would be an understatement. Generous souls and astonishing voices. The GPPC choir love for Richard Smallwood is a new, doe-eyed love, while our guest singers bring something much, much deeper to the rehearsal room. We put our music down, and we listen and we sing. Smallwood is a musical genius of the highest order, so the five songs just become more wonderful each week. “Calvary” has chords so mind-boggling that they can’t really exist. “Healing” somehow defies song-structure logic and sweeps us up in a crescendo like no other. “Feast of the Lord” has a groove that is simply intoxicating. “Trust Me” has that jaw-dropping key change. “You Did It All” is a gentle coda to the service, like the final movement of a Bach Passion setting. 

Finally, while I keep saying “guest singers”, the GPPC choir and I are really the guests in this repertoire. Next Friday, March 29, is Good Friday. The service is at 7:00 PM. The best that the choir can do is to sing with everything that we have. The best that the congregation can do is to come. Please come.

Doug Brown is Music Director at GPPC.

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