JOY TO THE WORLD:
The Worship Arts Ministry of the historic Alfred Street Baptist Church returned to The Kennedy Center Concert Hall for a festive evening of Christmas Music featuring the Grammy Award Winning Take 6 and Metropolitan Opera soprano Brandie Sutton
by Patrick D. McCoy
A few years ago, Alexandria’s historic Alfred Street Baptist Church mounted its very own Christmas production at our nation’s leading performing arts venue. It is certainly worth mentioning the fact that one of the areas most affluent African-American congregations created its own stage at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts on Monday night. Featuring its own choir, orchestra and guest musicians, the worship arts ministry ushered in the season in grand style in one of the world’s most prestigious concert halls.
An evening full of fresh arrangements of traditional carols, sprinkled with soulful nuances, the singers, instrumentalists and dancers all joined together in such a harmonious collaboration under the baton of conductor Theodore Thorpe, III. Along with the church’s very own music forces, among the special musical special guests of the evening were Grammy award winning group Take 6 and Metropolitan Opera soprano Brandie Sutton. Both added a distinct musical dimension to the program that further enhanced the culture of musical excellence fostered by the church’s worship arts ministry. Threaded together with moving narrations, the evening was punctuated by the thoughtful choreography by the church’s dance ministry. An unexpected surprise was seeing bass Soloman Howard, not singing, but as a part of the orchestra’s percussion section. Howard had just been presented in recital at The Kennedy Center as the 2019 Marian Anderson award winner, exactly a week ago, so it was neat to see him utilizing another one of his musical talents in a collaborative fashion.
Dr. Joyce Garrett, a legendary musical figure on the Washington landscape shared exclusively about the genesis of the holiday program and her rapport with the evening’s conductor Theodore Thorpe, III.
“At the beginning of each year, the music and worship arts leadership team begin planning for the Christmas concert. We knew that we wanted to invite Take 6 this year. They had been a great influence in the life of conductor, Theodore Thorpe, III. So, I contacted their management and we started the process.
Our vision for Christmas began expanding after a series of concerts at the Schlesinger Concert Hall on the NOVA campus, and the TC Williams Auditorium. Our audience demand required a larger space. We are very pleased with the response to our Kennedy Center concerts; and we hope that this becomes a yearly church tradition” said Garrett.
One of the musical hallmarks of the evening were the gentle nods to Handel’s oratorio “Messiah.” The aria “But Who May Abide” found itself wrapped in lush, jazzy treatment sung by Jackie Lewis. Her velvety voice with the swaying lines of the orchestra presented a fresh take on a beloved standard. Local standout Roderick Giles found himself center stage with Take 6 in an a cappella arrangement of the alto aria “O Thou That Tellest.” Supported by the melodious harmonies of the award winning group, Giles’ solo tenor navigated seamlessly with the sonorous voices of the ensemble. Metropolitan Opera soprano Brandie Sutton’s rendition of the aria “Rejoice Greatly was certainly the evening’s showstopper. With conductor Theodore Thorpe, III conducting the orchestra in a brisk 4/4 tempo, the soprano negotiated the quick melismatic passages with skill and finesse. There was a special ‘touch’ that Sutton added to the aria where her choice of ornaments were concerned. Whether it was the elegance of her vocal trills or the clarity of her upper register, all of the aforementioned accorded the soprano a rousing ovation.
There were several aspects in which the liturgical dance and music beautifully married one another throughout the evening. One of the best examples was in the beautiful setting of “A Multitude of Angels by Micheal McElroy and Joseph Joubert. As the voices of the choir raised in majesty with the orchestra, the dancers were cast radiantly in bright white light, adding a glow of ethereal transcendence. Christmastime often summon the joyful images of children. Those touching moments appeared in the special rendition of “The Little Drummer Boy” which featured Deontray Jones, II and the lovely selection “One Child” with soloist Cara Rhone and the ASBC Youth Choir.
Garrett spoke further about the numerous facets involved in the worship arts ministry at the church:
“ASBC is blessed with a very talented music and worship arts leadership team. We give each person room to demonstrate and grow in their strengths. Eight years ago, Theodore was chosen to conduct the choir and orchestra for the Christmas concert. Other musicians support the overall vision; and Liturgical dance and drama enhance selected individual pieces. I have marveled at his ability to authentically conduct music in genres from Classical to gospel and jazz. In the past, we have used the model of one choir/orchestra, and multiple directors. I assist him at rehearsals; but he teaches and molds the choir, himself. We have been very pleased with the excellent results of his leadership. With 200 participants, we also had more than 100 church volunteers to support our efforts” she expressed.
The musically nostalgic evening was rounded out with classics of the season, which included a stirring arrangement of “Oh Holy Night” which featured soprano Brandie Sutton. The entire cast, including the additional soloists brought the evening home with “Hallelujah” from the Soulful Messiah. Sending the audience away with hearts uplifted was the rousing “Go Tell it On the Mountain.”
With the familiar songs and the spirit of the holidays, the audience members will hopefully go and tell others about this experience so that they may look forward to being at The Kennedy Center next Christmas!
A native of Petersburg, VA, Patrick holds a BM in Vocal Performance from Virginia State University and a MM in Church Music from Shenandoah Conservatory. Formerly the Performing Arts Columnist for Washington Life Magazine, he currently is a freelance writer, publishing articles for several noted publications, including The Washington Post, Early Music America Classical Music Voice North America, The Afro-American Newspaper, CBS Washington and Examiner.com. He is a member of the Music Critics Association of North America, National Association of Negro Musicians, Inc., The American Choral Directors’ Association, a member of the Shenandoah University Alumni Board of Directors and a Life Member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. He serves as Organist/Choirmaster at Saint John’s Episcopal Church, Zion Parish in Beltsville, MD. Visit http://www.patrickdmccoy.com