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Each year on a typically chilly evening in downtown Akron, I observe concertgoers, clapping, swaying and even shouting when warmed by the spirit of the music resounding through E.J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall. The audience is moved by the instruments of the Akron Symphony Orchestra and the voices of the Akron Symphony Gospel Choir during the annual Gospel Meets Symphony concert, undoubtedly the orchestra’s most popular event.
This year, Feb. 23 is the concert’s 20th anniversary celebration, and concertgoers will experience an event that celebrates community, respects both gospel and classical music, and reaches out to people of diverse backgrounds. The event’s chairwoman is Brenda L. Justice and honorary chairwoman is Ann Lane Gates.
Gospel Meets Symphony arose from an effort in the early 1990s to make symphonic music accessible to all and to increase the participation and patronage of minorities in the Akron Symphony. The Minority Outreach Committee of the Greater Akron Musical Association (GAMA) sponsored several projects aimed at reaching this goal.
One of these was the commission of three pieces composed by African-Americans to be premiered by the Akron Symphony and recorded on a CD produced by Telarc International. The organization decided to host a concert of gospel music backed by a full symphony orchestra, and the proceeds would help finance the CD’s production and support the group’s overall cause. At that time, the late Alan Balter was the maestro of the Akron Symphony. He had conducted similar concerts with the Memphis Symphony Orchestra and enthusiastically supported the idea.
Gates, a founding member of the Minority Outreach Committee, and Edward Metzger co-chaired the committee, and Marva Allen-Murrell, Lawrence Butler and Delores Parker Morgan were also instrumental in planning the concert. More than 125 singers from 37 Akron churches participated, and a group of church choir directors, led by Cleo Myricks, led rehearsals for the newly formed Akron Symphony Gospel Choir.
The first Gospel Meets Symphony concert was held at the Akron Civic Theatre on Jan. 29, 1994. Tickets sold out three days before the event, leaving more than 200 interested parties unable to attend. Based on audience demand, Gospel Meets Symphony became an annual event.
“Akron’s Gospel Meets Symphony is unique and has been praised for its longevity and creativity,” Justice says. “It takes a team to make this unique event happen with a wonderful group of people.”
Since the sudden passing of Alan Balter in 1998, Gospel Meets Symphony has been led by guest conductors, including the renowned Eric Benjamin, Charles Floyd, Dr. Raymond Wise, Julius P. Williams and Roland Carter. Today, Akron Symphony’s Music Director Christopher Wilkins holds the baton.
>> Gospel Meets Symphony is the result of the dedication and hard work of its enthusiastic participants. People of all faiths and backgrounds compose the choir, now led by Chorus Master Jennifer Mekel Jones. Choir members begin rehearsals in December and dedicate nearly every Saturday afternoon to the effort.
“It’s a priority for me to be part of Gospel Meets Symphony each year,” says 20-year veteran singer Sylvia Thompson. “The music and the fellowship mean a great deal to me.”
Fellow choir member Christine Flakes couldn’t agree more. “It’s been a platform that has allowed different cultures to connect and render music to the masses,” she says. “What an awesome 20-year experience!”
In addition to the orchestra, the choir is joined by a rhythm section that includes an organist, keyboardist, bassist and drummer — all members of the local gospel community.
“The Gospel Meets Symphony rhythm section has a wonderful spiritual connection with one another,” Justice says. “We couldn’t have asked for a better group.”
Each concert features special treats, which have included performances by local group Divine Hope, excerpts from the musical, “Paul,” written by Akron’s Charles Myricks, a hymn arranged and conducted by Durrell LeGrair and Balter’s legendary jazz clarinet solo.
This year’s choir — 188 singers from 72 churches — will perform favorite songs from previous years’ concerts, including Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” sung in German, as well as new selections.
>> During the Gospel Meets Symphony concert, a powerful, contagious spirit fills the concert hall — moving people, both old and young. During one concert, a cellist spontaneously jumped up and danced around his instrument during a number, in joyous celebration of the music.
For several years, I attended the concert with my grandmother, then in her late 90s. After one performance, while wheeling her to the car, I remember her saying, “I had such good church tonight, it will last me for days.”
Tickets for Gospel Meets Symphony can be purchased through the Akron Symphony ticket office by calling 330-535-8131.
/ Freelancer Marion Thompson lives in Columbus but she’ll always be an Akron girl at heart.
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