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Boston Pops concerts celebrate black talent

Celina Colby
Celina Colby
Celina Colby is an arts and travel reporter with a fondness for Russian novels.... VIEW BIO
Spreading good news
Melinda Doolittle photo: courtesy bso

The Boston Pops celebrates African American talent with two events at Symphony Hall this season. The Best of the Boston Pops, led by Maestro Thomas Wilkins on May 22 and 25, provides a lively overview of popular music from Duke Ellington to the film soundtracks of John Williams. Gospel Night, led by conductor/pianist/composer Charles Floyd on June 2, celebrates the spirit-lifting songs of the black gospel tradition.

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Wilkins says it was a challenge distilling a century of popular music into one evening. “It’s like being a kid in the candy store,” he says. “Some great things get left on the table.” The program includes musical theater hits from Leonard Bernstein as part of Boston Symphony Orchestra’s yearlong tribute to the Massachusetts native’s would-be centennial. 

Melinda Doolittle photo: courtesy bso

Melinda Doolittle photo: courtesy bso

The lively “best of” night is meant for the whole family. Wilkins, who also serves as the BSO’s youth and family concerts conductor, encourages the attendance of children. He says his own experience with orchestral music began at a young age. “Many different kinds of people can enjoy many different kinds of music,” he says. “This concert demonstrates that the orchestra itself is not restricted to one repertoire.”

Tennessee native and “American Idol” finalist Melinda Doolittle has performed at Gospel Night with the Boston Symphony twice already, and she can’t wait to do it again. “I grew up on gospel, that’s how I learned to sing,” she says. Her own favorite hymn is “The Blood Will Never Lost Its Power.”

Doolittle’s range is extensive — she’s currently performing in a Tennessee production of “Grease,” and she performs with orchestras as effortlessly as with the retro pop cover band “Postmodern Jukebox.”

The term “gospel” means “good news,” and the music genre has roots in the African American church. Spirituals and hymns were blended together during services in the late 1800s to the rhythm of clapping and foot stomping. A choir was incorporated to lead the praises, and gospel music was born.

Though rooted in church and religious music, gospel is a celebration of life as much as it is a celebration of spirituality. Just as African American spirituals gave slaves the courage to press forward, gospel choirs are designed to hearten the community through good times and bad.

Gospel Night holds particular significance for Doolittle. “I believe that music was the way African Americans survived a lot of tough times,” she says. “Gospel is joyful and uplifting, and we need that right now.”