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'Great Day': New life for old music of black churches

As afternoon light tried to filter through the thick, stained-glass windows of Sharp Street United Methodist Church last weekend, Marco K. Merrick pounded out the bass line of a spiritual on a raw-sounding piano, singing along in a raspy voice: "Great day, the righteous marching. Great day, God's going to build up Zion's walls."

From the tightly packed pews in front of him, basses and baritones of the Community Concert Choir of Baltimore picked up the vocal line tentatively at first, but gained in confidence with each measure.

That passage settled, Merrick started over, this time bringing the rest of the chorus — more than 130 strong — into the march-tempo music. He rarely called out instructions now, speaking with his hands instead. With one slowly out-stretched gesture, he generated a terrific crescendo from the ensemble.

"That is delicious sounding," Merrick shouted.

For two break-less hours, the choir continued to rehearse for its annual spring concert, which takes place Sunday afternoon. This one commemorates the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, but, in effect, all of the group's performances honor African-American history.

The Community Concert Choir, which the Baltimore-born Merrick founded in 2010, specializes in what he considers to be neglected music, the traditional spirituals, hymns, anthems and gospel songs of African-American churches.

"In our culture, as with many cultures, the story is not being told," Merrick, 50, said. "It's not being shared with the new generation. In many black churches today, it's all about current, current. There are ministers saying they only want to do new stuff to get young people to come to church. Some churches don't even have hymnals anymore."

The program for the choir's spring concert includes several selections from those old hymn books, such as "Lift Up Your Heads," "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross," and "Holy Art Thou," an anthem based on a well-known aria from an 18th-century opera by Handel.

Music by classical composers is also part of the choir's songbook, including excerpts from Haydn's oratorio "The Creation." Sunday's program features the "Inflammatus" from Rossini's "Stabat Mater," a piece that was in the repertoire of the great soprano Leontyne Price (one of Merrick's musical heroes).

Gospel music, which became a pronounced part of worship service in black churches during the 20th century, has a place as well in the Community Concert Choir's programs. But, in this case, it's vintage.

"We sing the classic gospel of Thomas Dorsey and those who followed him," Merrick said, referring to black gospel artists who emerged in the 1920s and '30s and continued to influence the genre for several decades. "It's very old-school, and some people today don't even know it."

Contemporary gospel style places the emphasis on the contemporary. "Hip-hop has changed gospel music in a great way," said Eric Conway, director of the famed Morgan State University Choir.

Early black churches in this country adopted much of the music of white churches, and sang many hymns in common for generations. But one genre emerged solely from the African-American culture — spirituals, with their deep roots in slavery.

In addition to "Great Day," the Community Concert Choir program will include such standards as "His Name So Sweet," "I'm on My Way to Freedom Land" and "Ride the Chariot."

"In the African-American churches today, anthems and spirituals are often not performed the way they once were," Conway said. "There is a generation of older folk who remember singing these songs when they were young. They're very nostalgic for them. I applaud Marco for creating this choir so they can sing this music again."

Janet Frazier West, an alto and charter member of the ensemble, exemplifies Conway's point.

"I love singing the old hymns people haven't heard for years. It's very emotional for me," said West, 64. "I grew up in a church whey they sang all of this music."

The opportunity to reconnect with traditional sacred music has attracted participants from across the city and across denominations — the roster includes A.M.E. Church members, Seventh-day Adventists, Baptists, Roman Catholics, Episcopalians, Lutherans and more.

A few of the singers go quite the distance to participate, coming in from as far away as North Carolina and New York to rehearse and sing each season with the ensemble, which, at a minimum, performs a spring and fall concert annually.

In its three seasons, the ensemble has attracted admiring listeners, too. Conway, who directs one of the most acclaimed choirs in the country, is one of them.

"One reason the hymns of yesteryear are not appreciated is because they're not sung well," Conway said. "There is nothing worse than an anthem sung poorly. But Marco's group sings powerfully and well. He has attracted an outpouring of musicianship from all over the city."

The Community Concert Choir is a mature ensemble — "mostly 45 and older," Merrick said — with several retirees in the mix, among them Dr. Nina Rawlings, mother of Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. But the energy level can sound decidedly youthful, especially when the tempo quickens.

"You become one with the music, the way Marco leads us," said Marian W. Gayle, a soprano in her 70s who is president of the choir. "His command of the whole group is terrific. We are so thrilled and blessed that we have this. We went from 75 members at our first concert to almost 150 now."

One of the newer members is Gayle's daughter, Heather E. Gayle, a financial adviser with a New York Life Insurance Company office in Columbia. She started as a choir booster, lending a hand with the large auxiliary group that helps raise money for the organization.

"This year I started singing with the choir," the younger Gayle said. "A lot of the older music was a learning curve for me, but it doesn't feel like work. And I love how Marco gives you context."

As when Merrick tells the choristers the meaning of an inspirational song from 1868 that will be on Sunday's program, "The Long Day Closes," a tender piece in four-part harmony by Arthur Sullivan (best known for his collaborations on operettas with W.S. Gilbert).

The lyrics, by Henry Fothergill Chorley, contain images of a "half awake" moon, "gray mist creeping," and a clock that has "ceased to sound."

"I used to think it was just a beautiful poem about a day," Merrick said, "but I realized it is about life, which is a long day. We come here, live a day, and transition off at sunset. I like telling the stories behind the pieces. It helps the choir to embrace the music in a real way."

And if his singers don't embrace the music as wholeheartedly as he does, he lets them know it. At one point, when he didn't sense enough expressive nuance from them in "The Long Day Closes" at the line, "Go to the dreamless bed where grief reposes," the director didn't let it pass: "What bed are you all in?"

He wasn't too pleased, either, when voices entered haphazardly singing about the ceasing clock.

"Everyone has a different clock. I can tell that by how late you come to choir practice," Merrick said to a smattering of laughs.

He got more laughs when, working on "Ride the Chariot," he asked for a dynamic delivery of the words "My Lord." The reverential approach by the singers just would not fly.

Merrick finally gave them an example of what he meant (it was the weekend of the gigantic Powerball jackpot): "I just won $600 million — my Lord!" That did the trick. On the next try, the chorus punched out those words with infectious spirit.

The fast-talking, fast-moving director maintains a mix of informality and seriousness at rehearsals, but the balance is clearly on the serious — and the sincere.

Merrick has been on his give-me-that-old-time-religious-music mission for a long while. His first big outlet was a choir he formed at Douglas Memorial Church; the group performed traditional repertoire at annual concerts for 12 years but ceased in 2010.

"I would run into people for months who would tell me, 'You need to do this somewhere else; you need to start something in the community,'" Merrick said. "I kept saying no, but you can see the result of my saying no."

The youngest of seven children, Merrick got early exposure to this music sitting in the balcony for services in a Southwest Baltimore church.

"My mother remembers that hearing the organ would always get my attention," he said. "I wouldn't be distracted. Then I started paying attention to the singing. That's how it all started."

Merrick went on to study piano at Peabody Preparatory when he was about 8 (he teaches piano now at the Nathan Carter School of Music at New Shiloh Baptist Church).

He eventually focused on communications, earning degrees in that field from Towson University and the University of Baltimore, and worked locally with WJZ-TV and a Boston station over the years. He also taught communications at Morgan State. His current day job is with Baltimore City's Register of Wills.

But church music remains his passion. And he takes advantage of any opportunity to spread the value of it. In Los Angeles one year, directing a choir made up of high school students participating in the NAACP's Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics, Merrick started teaching the singers about spirituals — new music for many of them.

"The young people were supposed to go to a party with hip-hop at 10 p.m., but at 10:20 they were still in the rehearsal room with me," Merrick said. "They didn't want me to stop. I was amazed."

Getting the younger set to attend performances by the Community Concert Choir is an ongoing goal.

"It just boils down to exposure," Merrick said. "It's just like with theater or literature or classical music. And whether they appreciate it at the time or later, it's important to expose them to it. In this choir, we're restoring for some folks what they may have lost, but we're also trying to impart an inheritance to younger people."

As last weekend's rehearsal wrapped up — first with announcements, then a prayer, much like a church service where everyone is family — Merrick had one more thing to say to the choristers:

"If you haven't invited a young person to this concert, you are doing yourself a disservice."

tim.smith@baltsun.com

 

If you go

The Community Concert Choir of Baltimore performs at 5 p.m. Sunday at Sharp Street Memorial United Methodist Church, Dolphin and Etting Streets. Free admission (freewill offering). Call 410-523-7200

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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