Monday, 22 April 2013

HARLEM GOSPEL CHOIR / A Tapestry of Sacred Music / Review

A Tapestry of Sacred Music
Esplanade Concert Hall
Friday (19 April 2013)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 22 April 2013 with the title "O Happy night".

Esplanade’s 3-day festival of sacred music could not have gotten to better start, opening to the groovy beat of New York City’s Harlem Festival Choir. African-American gospel music began with the spirituals sung by African slaves on the cotton plantations of America’s Deep South. Converted from heathenism to Christianity by their white masters, black music took on religious tones, but coloured by an infectious sense of rhythm and that essential but undefinable element called soul.

Those expecting spirituals sung a cappella in strophic form would have been disappointed, as the songs performed were updated to contemporary popular tastes, accompanied by synthesiser and drum-set. This concert was in effect a worship service, much like those which charismatic Christian churches here aspire to, except that this was the real thing.

Each song is simple, built upon a catchy refrain that is repeated with increasing fervour and passion. The lead singer intones a proclamation, to which the chorus of eight respond and comment. This call-and-response form of worship does not conform to any liturgy but is no less sincere in its expression of faith and belief.

Typically informal was this call-and-response: “Have you tried Jesus?” answered by, “He’s alright!” Only the most dogmatically strait-jacketed would object to this, or the number that went “Who am I? I am a friend of God!” led by the deep-voiced Studdardesque dude (after the American Idol winner) called Mike. The audience was beginning to warm up, singing along with the chorus and waving their hands.

The music was less preachy after the intermission. No introduction was needed for John Newton’s Amazing Grace, showcasing the amazing vocals of soprano Quiona and the dread-locked Travis. Both employed seemingly impossible melismata for long-held notes, with gravity-defying feats in the highest possible registers. Church music or no, that was exactly what the audience came for.

All the nine singers took turns to lead, each bringing their own charm and personality to the proceedings. As for encouraging audience participation, they did not break the ice but melted it with a warmth and radiance that came with being genuinely joyous. When it came to Shakira (not that Shakira) to lead O Happy Day, the entire audience was up on its feet, including many who ventured up onstage to join the singers, jiving and swaying to the music.

This continued into Kool & The Gang’s Celebration, with slightly altered lyrics, and a much appreciated encore. Almost everybody was sorry to leave, and if people may be persuaded to forget for two and a half hours that terrorists and cancer still stalk the world, then the Harlem Gospel Choir has succeeded beyond its wildest dreams.

A standing ovation is a sure thing in all Harlem Gospel Choir concerts.

Really, nobody wanted to go home!

Good quality photos courtesy of Esplanade Theatres By The Bay.   

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