The twenty-sixth Gospel Meets Symphony concert took place Saturday evening February 23 at E.J.Thomas Hall on the campus of the University of Akron. The annual celebration, held during Black History Month, combined 181 diverse singers from seventy-seven area churches. Together they joined with the renowned Akron Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Christopher Wilkins, music director since 2006. Along with a special rhythm section, the collaboration performed eleven songs with a brief intermission and an encore.
Mr. Wilkins gave special notice to a handful of the musicians and singers who were there when the annual concert began in 1994. Enrobed in rich purple tops and black pants and skirts, the choir glowed as they moved in syncopated swaying (and often clapping) during the songs. Choir director and featured soloist Jennifer Mekel Jones was resplendent in a flowing black gown as she led the choir in a joyful, animated, and reverent mix of gospel songs.
Mr. Wilkins was energetic as he conducted and equally so as he described the history of a number of the melodies. As he spoke of gospel music, he said, “We’ve begun [the night] by showing off.” Before the singers and musicians performed, It is Well With My Soul, he told the emotional story of how the song by Horatio Spafford, a devout Christian, came to be (he wrote it in 1866 after his four daughters drowned while aboard a ship which collided with another). Wilkins continued, “As we present this song, you can hear the sea billows of sorrow in the music.”
Emotion ranged from joy to happiness to deep reverence as the singers and musicians also performed songs such as You are Good (Israel Houghton), Maybe God’s Trying to Tell You Something (from The Color Purple), and How I Got Over (Clara Ward). There were two compositions that received the greatest reaction from the audience of about two-thousand. Elijah Rock was presented a cappella by the choir and then church broke out at E.J. Thomas Hall when Ida Ashford sang Lord, You Are Holy. The audience felt her emotion as she sang from her soul. She rightly received a standing ovation, and not just for her performance; many in the crowd stood in worship.
First-time attender, Kenny Mason said, “This is exactly what I imagined. It’s even better because my mom is in it. I am keeping my eyes on her the whole time and I am feeling the music and the soloists’ spirit of excitement and joy.” Kenny’s favorite of the night was, “You Are Good.” If you don’t know the song, find it on YouTube and have a listen. While an orchestra and choir can never provide the punch of a smaller dynamic band, the spirit of the singers and musicians well carried the emotion of this song, and the audience clapped and sang along, many standing and raising their hands.
The classical work chosen by Conductor Wilkins was La Forza del destino Overture (The Force of Destiny), written in 1869 by Giuseppe Verdi. Thoughtfully chosen for the night, Mr. Wilkins said, “You may think it strange to see an overture by Verdi included tonight, but as we step into each others’ worlds, we see a hint of man’s story in this piece. In the middle, pay attention to the violinists, the character prays for redemption as the strings swell. One can look at Psalm 139 and think of this. And I love this overture.” As he began to raise his baton, he added with a smile, “Here it is, a classic of the gospel repertoire.” The audience laughed with him.
Dee Price was a first-time participant in the concert, and her experience was so positive she plans to join again in 2020.
“Everybody spent their time praising the Lord”
Rehearsals started in December on Saturdays from 2:00-4:00, with more added as they got closer to the concert. In general anyone can join the choir, although auditions are held for soloists.
Dee said, “Everyone was very patient and it was really, really fun. It sounded like we were in a down-home Baptist church.” Reflecting on the whole event, Dee said, “It was amazingly diverse, lots of our members said it was the most invigorating experience they ever had. For me, the actual performance was the best part. It raised our adrenaline and it was an energetic, vibrant atmosphere.”
Dee’s schedule hasn’t slowed since the concert. She teaches eighth grade and she wrote a Black History play for her school (Mary McLeod Bethune PreK-8 on Moulton Ave. in Cleveland). Free performances are Thursday, February 28 at 9:00 a.m. and 2:45 p.m.