On Dec. 2, Rowan’s Concert Choir held “A Gospel Celebration” in Pfleeger Concert Hall at 7:30 p.m. Conducted by Director of Choral Activities Christopher Thomas, the two-act performance consisted of Gabriel Fauré’s “Requiem” and Robert Ray’s “Gospel Mass.” Pairing the traditional sounds of a cathedral choir with the dominant vocals and powerful harmonies of the Gospel, the Concert Choir put on a show dedicated to religious expression and a musical appreciation for God in two very distinct styles.
The recital began with the seven-part movement “Requiem,” starting “Introit et Kyrie,” meaning “Lord, have mercy” and finishing with “In Paradisum” which translates to “Into Paradise.” Following the standard dynamics and principles of a classic cathedral mass, the choir sang the entirety of “Requiem” in Latin, the language in which it was written and is traditionally performed.
“I’ll let the music speak for itself, but I will say in the beginning you’ll certainly hear grieving, pleading comfort, and a tremendous amount of beauty,” said Thomas to the audience before beginning the first act.
The choir was accompanied on the organ by Mark Miller, a lecturer in sacred music at Yale’s Institute of Sacred Music and Divinity School and a professor of church music, director of the chapel, and composer in residence at Drew University.
“Requiem” also featured three solos by students, including baritone Thomas Burgel in the middle of “Offertoire,” baritone Moses Possible at the beginning and middle of “Libera me,” and a one-woman performance by soprano Annina Lopes during “Pie Jesu.”
“They [the soloists] just bring so much energy into their singing,” said alto Eleanor Dishong regarding the soloists in the first act, “It just brings power to the entire choir.”
After a brief 15-minute intermission, the choir came back out to sing “Gospel Mass” along with some special guests. Switching from organ to piano, Miller along with some other musicians joined the group as a small jazz band. Vocalists George Johnson and DaWana Richardson were also brought on stage as featured vocalists.
Thomas also took a step back for act two, with Adjunct Instructor at Rider University and Director of the Jubilee Singers for Westminster Choir College Vinroy D. Brown Jr. stepping in as a guest conductor.
“I am thrilled to be here and it’s been a pleasure to work with these incredible artists behind me and just having fun,” said Brown before starting the second act.
Brown also wanted to make it clear that while “Requiem” was to be observed by a quiet audience only clapping in between songs, “Gospel Mass” should be enjoyed in the exact opposite way, as he welcomed the crowd to dance, sing, and clap along with the Concert Choir during the entirety of their performance.
“You[the audience] are now going to be part of the fun and I know you can see us and we[the choir] can’t see you, but we can feel you,” said Brown to the crowd. “There’s no glue stuck to your seats and you’re welcome to get up and clap when appropriate. I hope you enjoy this with us and I think once you see how much they’re digging it, you won’t have any other choice but to dig in too.”
And that’s exactly what the audience and choir did, as they all swayed and clapped to the beat of the music. Paired with the powerful vocals of Johnson and Richardson, an effort that got her a standing ovation for vocals in “Credo”, and the swinging jazz instrumentals, act two proved to be a standard upbeat impassioned performance of a traditional gospel mass.
Getting to work with these professional musicians as a part of the choir was something that Dishong says was special.
“It’s such a great experience to get to work with a completely different style of music than what we[the choir] are used to. Every one of them is so knowledgeable and it’s just magical what they bring to the plate and how we’re all able to just make music together,” said Dishong.
Highlighting two unique versions of a religious mass, the Concert Choir’s performance of “A Gospel Celebration” showed that while the genres may look and sound very different, they all celebrate one thing: a lively and engaging appreciation for the divine.
As Brown puts it, “Everyone is going to have fun because we just gotta have fun.”