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A Sacred Space

The Millennium Gospel Choir holds its annual holiday performance

Susan Saccoccia
Susan Saccoccia
A Sacred Space
The Millennium Gospel Choir in concert. Photo: Cynthia Clayton Photography

Born from an abundance of talent and inspired by the desire to pool this talent into celebrating the sacred music of the African American gospel tradition, the Millennium Gospel Choir held its 18th annual holiday performance at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston last weekend.

Founded in 2000 through New England Conservatory’s Community Collaborations program, the 200-member ensemble, chosen from choirs throughout Greater Boston, is led by six directors, each an educator and music minister.

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The power of their combined talent and devotion surged from the stage from the start with a goose-bump-inducing torrent of sound from both voices and clapping hands. 

As Deborah Fair, a choir director and minister of liturgical dance at the St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church in Cambridge, conducted this locomotive of chanting voices, she spiraled like a reed in the wind. Behind her, the chorus swayed, creating music that is heard, seen and felt by all in the concert hall.

The profound spiritual “Change Me” featured soloist Jenerra Williams. Wearing a modest suit, she was a figure of physical calm, but through her ardent vocals she led the chorus in a deeply felt delivery of this plea for personal transformation.

During its debut year, in 2000, the choir shared the Jordan Hall stage with Richard Smallwood, an iconic contributor to the contemporary evolution of gospel music, as part of the New England Conservatory’s 21st Annual Thomas A. Dorsey Gospel Jubilee. A high point of the concert was the choir’s rendering of the Smallwood classic, “Total Praise.” The spiritual has become a mainstay of the choir’s repertoire, and last week, with hands rising in unison for its chorus, the choir unleashed its sublime power. 

The Millennium Choir turned the concert hall into a sacred space, with no need for slick, commercial-grade embellishments that creep into some big-name performances. Singers stepped out and performed full-force solos and then returned to their places in the ensemble, nearly hidden from view. Yet even tucked into a back row, each remained radiant and fully engaged.

The Millennium Gospel Choir Band, the choir’s able trio, comprises musicians ubiquitous within and beyond the local music scene: the brothers David and Gerald Langford on keyboards and bass, respectively, and Jamaal Shoffner on drums.

Taking a turn at the piano, David Coleman, one of the directors, provided tender accompaniment to Sayida Rivers Farmer’s searing solo, eloquently embroidering her vocals to “Give Me Jesus,” a solemn yet joyful hymn arranged by Donnell Patterson, a founding director. 

Each year’s program reflects events in the community and often includes a tribute to someone dear to the ensemble. In 2015, they dedicated their entire MFA Boston Christmas concert to founding director Patricia Dance, who had died just two weeks before the performance. 

This year, Herb Jones, another director, reprised a segment of his recent Stonehill College concert in tribute to Aretha Franklin’s glorious album “Amazing Grace.” Soloists Sheri Callender and Suzanne Buell brought fierce energy to “God is/Natural,” turning Franklin’s iconic ballad of finding her worth in the love of a man into a spiritual, and “Old Landmark.” Off to the side, a trio of women shook tambourines in unison, joining the drummer and pianist in an intense, joyous, improvisational coda.

Throughout their concert, Millennium Gospel Choir members were performing for real, for us, for themselves and for the source of their inspiration.

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