Soul Symphony

· culture ·

"Baroque calypso!"

That was what I had written in the programme next to the last piece in the 'Soul Symphony' concert at Symphony Hall, conducted by Ken Burton. I couldn't quite believe what I had written — or, for that matter, what I had heard — but there it was. The concert was a celebration of the hymn in all forms, with particular reference to the influences and intertwining of various forms of earlier and later music on gospel and spirituals. The culmination of this exploration was a piece called 'Worship the King', written by Ken Burton. It involved the whole orchestra, bongo drums, a gospel band, some of the Birmingham Symphony Chorus, the City of Birmingham Young Voices, two community choirs and an all-female a capella group called 'Black Voices', who all made — to put it simply — a big sound. The piece started in a lively baroque style, which wouldn't have sounded out of place if it had been written by Handel. Then it suddenly and delightfully morphed into a calypso beat, singing the same phrases. This alternation repeated a couple of times, and then the final section had both styles overlaid on one another, the syncopated calypso phrases slotting in between the more extended baroque ornamentation. It was a work of genius, and I would never have thought that those two styles would sit so comfortably together.

So what was I — an atheist — doing at a gospel concert? Well, despite my atheism, I'm very fond of church and religious music of all kinds, and particularly of gospel and spirituals. Like the Blues, they tend to be sung with a great depth of feeling, whether they are sorrowful or uplifting, and I like music with feeling and 'soul'. I also like learning about the similarities between different musical traditions — particularly vocal styles. Life would be very dull if everything was homogeneous, but people tend to pick what they like from existing styles and make something that is uniquely their own. I didn't know before the concert that gospel was strongly influenced by non-conformist and Methodist music, nor that the hymn 'I Have Decided to Follow Jesus' was written by an Indian prince, so I learnt quite a lot too.

The performers were great, particularly 'Black Voices'. They apparently had the idea for the concert, and did some wonderful a capella renditions of traditional spirituals, like 'Steal Away' and the Old Testament spirituals like 'Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho' and 'Let My People Go'. I hadn't realized before that gospel singers sing with their hands and bodies as much as their voices. At the start, I think some of the singers felt a bit inhibited by the grand surroundings, and stood quite still, but as they relaxed they started to move about and use their hands, and the music improved tremendously.

It isn't often that you visit the toilets during the interval of a classical concert and hear people singing the pieces they've just heard. But then it's not often that you hear pieces like 'Siyahamba/We Are Marching' (a Zulu chant/hymn) sung with such joy and verve. I'm still singing it now, even though I have no intention of Marching in the Army of the Lord.