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Millenium Choir lauds Christmas with harmonic gospel style

Susan Saccoccia | 12/27/2013, 6 a.m.
Glorifying God as well as the power of the African American gospel music tradition, the New England Conservatory Millennium Choir ...
Members of the New England Conservatory Millenium Choir perform during a concert at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston last Friday. The gospel music choir was led during the performance by five music ministers from area churches. (Charlotte Zoller photo)

Glorifying God as well as the power of the African American gospel music tradition, the New England Conservatory Millennium Choir captivated its audience on Friday night at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston with a high-spirited celebration of the Christmas season.

Every seat in the Remis Auditorium was filled at the performance, the choir’s fifth Christmas concert here since 2005, an event that has become a beloved annual tradition for many in the audience.

The choir generated excitement from the moment they strode on stage. Dressed in black, a long stream of men and women entered and took their places on tiered stands, forming three rows. Co-founder Patricia Dance, her red dress matching the women’s red scarves, exuded warmth as she introduced the “multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-generational” ensemble.

Founded in 2000, the NEC Millennium Gospel Choir performs with the heart and skill to equal the grandeur of its mission — to bring the majesty of black gospel music into the new millennium. The choir draws its 200 members from more than 30 church choirs in Boston and surrounding towns. The singers were chosen for their superior vocal gifts and dedication to gospel music, and range in age from 16 to 82.

Key to the black gospel tradition is a visual and auditory experience that blends precision with exuberant passion. Its disciplines nurture individual voices and styles within a common framework that breeds familial warmth and human connection.

At the MFA, the choir was radiant as they swayed and clapped in unison; the singers encompassed the audience in a tidal wave of sound and emotion.

On hand to lead the choir were five of its music directors, distinguished music ministers serving at area churches. Taking turns conducting were Dance and fellow co-founder Donnell Patterson, an NEC faculty member, as well as David Coleman, Herbert Jones, Renese King and Jonathan Singleton.

Deftly accompanying the choir were keyboardist Adonis Martin, drummer Jamal Shoffner and bassist Domenic Davis.

Recalling the choir’s 2007 concert tour in South Africa, Jonathan Singleton led a tribute to Nelson Mandela. He conducted the singers in a hymn they sang during their visit, a majestic Alleluia chorus interwoven with a Swahili chant.

The choir rendered a virtuoso cappella version of “God Rest You Merry Gentlemen,” the men and women braiding their voices into rounds of exquisite harmony.

Donnell Patterson led the choir in an ecstatic song of praise, their joyful rendition of Handel’s “For Unto Us a Child Is Born.” His arms spreading in ever-wider arcs, he seemed on the verge of taking flight.

The varied repertoire mingled traditional carols with sublime arrangements of contemporary R&B hits.

The choir elevated the Isley Brothers’ R&B hit, “Caravan of Love” into a hymn of human connection.

David Coleman accompanied the choir with delicate lyricism on the keyboard as they sang his soaring arrangement of Chris Brown’s “This Christmas.”

Just before a closing hymn by iconic gospel composer Richard Smallwood, the choir mined the gold in a hit by ‘60s rock-and-roll pioneer Jackie DeShannon. Backed by the strong groove of Jonathan Singleton’s keyboards, the choir sang “Put a Little Love in Your Heart,” embracing the audience in an ecstatic high and strong rhythmic pulse.