Britain’s most acclaimed classical orchestra is to take its first step into the world of gospel music on Sunday in a ground-breaking, sold-out choral concert at the Barbican Centre in London.
The leading gospel composer and conductor André J Thomas flew in from the US last week to lead a choir of 400 amateur and professional singers, and join the musicians of the full London Symphony Orchestra.
Thomas, 67, who recently joined Yale University as a visiting professor, spoke of his commitment to the gospel tradition after his first rehearsal at the LSO’s base in east London.
“It is growing all over the world,” he said. “Like folk music, gospel represents a culture. So you can empathise with it as any artist would, like an actor in a play. And if you identify with the faith as well, that makes it easier.”
One of the best-known tunes on tonight’s programme is He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands, and Thomas will perhaps have fresh insight into the lyrics when he faces the combined members of the London Adventist Chorale, the LSO Community Choir, Hackney Empire Community Choir, Milton Keynes Community Choir and choirs led by conductor Hannah Brine. There will also be American guest soloists – soprano NaGuanda Nobles and tenor Jason Dungee – along with pianist Brandon Boyd. “I’m not sure how it will feel. I don’t know the acoustic of the hall, so we shall see,” he said.
Other gospel favourites and earlier “spirituals” first sung by black slaves will be followed by Thomas’s own composition, a choral mass. Teaching British singers, many of them white, how to find the right sound was not hard, Thomas said, and he had no concern about presiding over the cultural appropriation of black music.
“In America at the moment it is a big thing to consider whether you are trying to appropriate a culture by singing this music” he said. “But you do not become black by singing gospel. It is no different to when you sing the songs of any other folk culture. You have to understand the culture so that you are not doing a caricature. You get as close as you can to the real thing, just like we work on our diction when we are singing Bach.”
The gospel concert has the backing of the LSO’s music director, conductor Sir Simon Rattle, who has encouraged professional classical musicians to work with amateur and community choirs since his time at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in the 1980s.
“Music is a birthright for everyone, and a way of communicating with each other without the barriers of language,” Rattle told the Observer. “At our happiest times, and our saddest, we sing and make music as a means of coping – from the rousing anthems on the terraces of football particularly at Anfield, to the grief of a requiem mass. Add an orchestra into the mix and we move to another level, and once you’ve experienced that, you will come back for more.”
The orchestra’s managing director, Kathryn McDowell, sees the concert as part of the duty of a major London orchestra. “There is a strong tradition of church commission in classical music,” she said. “And the traditions of this particular music are really important in London today.”
Thomas said he had nudged the British singers towards the correct vowel sounds with a few deft words. “It is something you do with all English-speaking amateur choirs, because they usually sing with more of the accent they speak with. I often have to work on the diphthong, to get more emphasis on the first part of the vowel, so they can sustain the sound.”
British gospel expert Ken Burton, who directs the London Adventist Chorale, said the number of community gospel choirs in Britain was growing rapidly, with many of them unconnected to churches. And he does make some distinctions between the gospel sounds on either side of the Atlantic. “In Britain there is a more marked preservation of cultural identity than in the US, where everyone considers themselves ‘American’,” he said. “This is, in part, due to the longer time generations have been in America, whereas mass migration to Britian from the Caribbean and African continents is more recent. As a result, British gospel music has been heavily infused with sounds from the Caribbean and the African continent, whilst retaining the original American ingredients.”