RENEW: The Washington Performing Arts Men, Women and Children of the Gospel marked their 25th Anniversary at the Music Center at Strathmore, culminating the 50th Anniversary of its presenter, Washington Performing Arts.

by Patrick D. McCoy

It was a spirited Friday evening of Gospel at the Music Center at Strathmore. The bustling crowd filled the hall with almost a sense of yearning and anticipation for the music that is known for its uplifting power. For the opener, a group of singers composed of Children of the Gospel Alumni were featured as a prelude to the concert, almost like a sung invocation. Kurt Carr‘s “Psalm 150” conducted by Michele Fowlin was the embodiment of all who serve in music ministry resounded forth by the full aggregation of voices. Marked by the raw, passionate sound of gospel, there was also a tone of majesty as the united voices resounded on the text: “Let everything that hath breath, praise the Lord!”

After a gracious and inviting welcome by the Mistress of Ceremonies of the evening, the beloved Jacquie Gales Webb, the concert continued with Stanley J, Thurston leading the combined choirs in James Glover‘s “Thy Name Be Praised” seguing into Tramaine Hawkins‘ “Excellent Lord.” The core theme of praise was inherent throughout the whole evening, working in such beauty to bring forth the complimentary themes that were also at the genesis of the evening. “Renew” was the overarching theme of the concert and was conceptualized to evoke the renewing of mind, body and spirit. There is certainly an undeniable power present in the singing of young voices. Under the direction of Michele Fowlin, the Children of the Gospel offered a very worshipful offering of Philip Carter‘s deeply reflective piece “A Singer’s Prayer” that lead seamlessly into “Why Do We Sing” Gale Jones Murphy. Those two pieces together in such fashion truly communicated the important reason why so many were gathered for this special evening of music at the concert hall: to spread a message of hope and to receive the joy of gospel music!

Toshi Reagon‘s “DC Water” was a special work commissioned for the 50th Birthday of Washington Performing Arts President and CEO Jenny Bilfield. The piece is one that not only had a musical message but also a social impact. Bringing awareness to the water crisis here at home and in so many other places, the world performance of “DC Water” by the Men and Women of the Gospel had some moments that were disjunct and perhaps added to the feeling of crisis and urgency in the world we live in and the water we drink.

The Children of the Gospel brought the first half of the concert to a powerhouse close with Donald Lawrence‘s “Matthew 28.” The interesting thing about this piece was the commanding way in which director Michele Fowlin was able to maintain such high stamina and accuracy as she not only narrated the piece, but also conducted the choir with such panache!

As the concert continued, the second half was filled with some of those gospel gems of the church. The classic “Safe in His Arms” by Darius Brooks featured soloists Elaine Johnson, Tania Brunson and Lois Mockabee. Each soloist brought their own personal testimony to the music. This was definitely one of the transportive moments of the evening that definitely moved not only among the performers, but also throughout the dedicated members of the audience. Adding the beauty of the concert were also the elegant dancers and banner bearers who performed on many of the selections-under the direction of choreographer Virginia Raye.

Stanley J. Thurston’s “A Dwelling Place” was a combining of both old and new. Beginning with a fresh rhythmic treatment of the traditional Advent hymn “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” there was a feeling of expectation that blossomed. Michele Fowlin conducted the work with the composer at the piano. Featured soloist was Washington Performing Arts Children of the Gospel Alumna Annisse Murillo, a soprano finishing her first year at Mannes College of Music in New York. Together with violinist Gavin Fallow, the two artists brought classical element to this extended work. With the voices culminating on the text “Alleluia” the themes of hope, praise and presence before the Lord all were welcomed by the yearning listeners. The Richard Rodgers favorite “You’ll Never Walk Alone” was arranged by Michele Fowlin, Again featuring soprano Annisse Murillo (who was heard previously in the Thurston work) this song was so appropriate for a time such as these. Murillo’s voice has truly blossomed, having heard the potential in previous concerts when she was a member of the choir. This is truly a testament to the work of organizations such as WPA, giving back to young artists and nurturing talent.

Even though there were many showcases of talent on last Friday evening, the DC native, New York based singer C. Anthony Bryant truly held the audience enraptured by his command of voice. Singing as a part of a medley of Richard Smallwood favorites arranged by pianist Anthony ‘Tony’ Walker, Bryant not only offered his resonant, operatic voice-but then displayed his roots in the church with the same level of excellence. It was most appropriate to have him as a part of that particular medley, considering that Richard Smallwood is a model of celebrating the ‘classical’ and ‘gospel’ in such a great fashion. Songs like “My Everything” and of course the beloved “Total Praise” all created such a wonderful atmosphere of worship and renewal.

Sending the the people out on a high note, the combined choirs offered Hezekiah Walker’s upbeat “Better.”

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