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Millennium Gospel Choir in concert at MFA Boston

The power of unified voices

Susan Saccoccia
Susan Saccoccia
Millennium Gospel Choir in concert at MFA Boston

The Millennium Gospel Choir recently performed its 19th annual Christmas concert at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston. Now a three-concert event spanning Friday and Saturday, the program draws capacity audiences, many of whom, like the singers, return year after year.

The Saturday afternoon matinee demonstrated once again the abiding power of the African American gospel tradition as well as the depth and variety of gifts within the 60-member ensemble, a community choir drawn from Greater Boston’s churches and universities that includes six music directors, each a distinguished educator and music minister. 

Celebrating the power of cohesion as well as the individual gifts, voices and personalities of its members, the choir rouses body and soul with its rhythmic clapping and vocals and swaying bodies, exalting singers and audience alike in a surging bond of good will.

Spectacle too is part of the experience, from the moment that the singers stream onto the stage and form three rows, each attired in a black outfit accented by a red scarf or tie.

Director Deborah Fair began the proceedings, with a highly visual, expressive style, as befits Fair, who is both a choir director and minister of liturgical dance at the St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church in Cambridge. Her slender arms shooting left, right, and center, she led an animated dialogue with the singers, summoning their varied voices.

Donnell Patterson, a founding director who also serves at St. Paul, as minister of music, and is music director at Belmont Hill School, exuberantly welcomed the audience in a rhythmic rapid-fire flow of speech explained the sections of the chorus, with sopranos to the left, tenors in the middle, altos on the right, and behind all in the back row, the “basso profundo” group.

Alongside the choir was the Millennium Gospel Choir Band, anchored by bassist Domenic Davis and drummer Jamal Shoffner, and frequently joined by directors Jonathan Singleton and Herbert S. Jones, on upright piano and keyboards, respectively. 

The matinee’s 16 selections comprised both traditional spirituals as well as popular carols reinvented with the rhythmic give-and-take of gospel arrangements. 

Singleton, music minister at the Twelfth Baptist Church and assistant professor at Berklee College, led the choir in a traditional Gullah hymn, “Come by Here (Kum Ba Yah)”

Herbert S. Jones, who directs Boston University’s Inner Strength Gospel Choir and manages the MFA’s internship and volunteer programs, conducted his gospel-inflected version of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” as well as his composition “Wonderful,” with soloist Carl Corey’s baritone riding the current of the choir’s voices like a surfer gliding on a long, rolling wave.

David Coleman, whose activities include directing the Tufts University Gospel Choir, introduced his composition, “The Lord Is My Light,” with a poignant tale of performing it for his mother, recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. As she listened, he said, she became the person he knew, demonstrating the power of music to connect us with ourselves and each other.

Later, Coleman led what has become a staple of the program, his “Christmas Medley,” which at its peak engages the audience and the choir in singing lines from four different carols, all at the same time.

The magnetism of a capella singing was explored in two songs led by Rebecca Kenneally, chair of performing arts at Endicott College and also its choral and musical theater director. 

Joy and conviction infused the delivery of “Walk Together Children Don’t You Get Weary,” a traditional spiritual arranged by Raymond Wise. Complimenting its surging staccato chorus was a plaintive and fierce solo by Maru Colbert, whose voice had a metallic edge with which she issued spare jabs resembling a solo by saxophonist Archie Shepp.

Colbert was also one of three soloists for the next song, “Can’t Take My Joy from Me,” by punk-rock folksinger Michelle Shocked, and when she took the mike, her voice honed its pulsing resolve. 

The grandeur of the Millennium Choir is both in its unison power, which its directors conduct like an orchestra; and also its use of soloists to focus, thread, and punctuate this vocal tide.

Arranged by Donnell Patterson, the choir’s rendering of the hymn “O Holy Night” featured an ardent, persuasive solo by Jenerra Williams that was both tender and deep in tone. In response to wild applause when the choir finished the song, Patterson led a reprise, and choir members deftly passed the microphone up to Williams, who had already returned to her position in the back row.

The choir closed the program with the soaring gospel classic that concludes all of its Christmas concerts, “Total Praise,” composed by Richard Smallwood. The renowned gospel music director and educator had shared the stage with the Millennium Choir at its 2000 debut in Jordan Hall.

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