Gospel goes to Vienna


Gospel sounds from Carroll County will echo this week in the halls where Mozart and Strauss once played.

Voices from Union Street United Methodist Church and Western Maryland College will combine in song beginning Friday at the 14th Vienna Advent Concert in Austria. Austrian cultural officials organize the international festival, which runs every weekend during the four weeks before Christmas. The Carroll contingent, the only gospel choir participating, will give three performances.

"Vienna is the city of music and now it is embracing black music," said Eric B. Byrd, choir director. "Gospel, rhythm and blues, jazz all continues to be big in Europe. We should be well received."

The 22-member choir, a mix of ages and races, will sing at City Hall, a high school and Festival Hall, where Mozart played and Johann Strauss premiered his first waltz.

"Gospel is a historically African-American genre, but you don't have to be African-American to sing it or enjoy it," Byrd said. "You just have to open yourself up to the emotions of the music and once you do that, it transcends everything."

For several months, the church and college choirs have rehearsed together at the small African-American church in Westminster. Byrd selected the concert music based on the individuals going from the two groups he directs. He intends to give each soloist a chance to shine in Vienna.

"If you tell Eric you want a solo, he will find one for you," said Amie G. Glasgow, a college senior and member of the WMC Gospel Choir. "You don't have to sing like Whitney Houston either."

Glasgow grew up singing in Methodist choirs near her home in Columbia, but she finds gospel a more powerful medium.

"I am singing the same hymns with the gospel choir, but definitely at a different emotional level," she said. "Music does something words alone cannot, and gospel music does it better than any other genre."

Gospel musicians are singing prayers and parables, said Glasgow's classmate, Daria James. The music dates to the days of slavery, telling in song the stories of flights to freedom and struggles for justice.

"All my life, I have been taught about slaves," James said. "I get their feelings when I sing their songs."

The music immediately draws the audience in, "like we are all one person," she said.

Soloist Larry Brumfield, a member of Union Street for eight years, promises to deliver a rousing "Still Have Joy" for the Austrian audiences. The lyrics speak of the triumph of the spirit over daily trials and tribulations.

At a fund-raising performance in Westminster last month, Brumfield had the audience dancing, clapping and cheering.

"These are songs we have sung for years and years," he said. "We have something unique to offer the world from the black perspective."

For Brumfield, the five-day trip is another opportunity for the group to sing and minister to one another.

"For many, who have not had a lot of success in their lives, this trip will be something to build on," Brumfield said.

Carolyn Wars, a singer with the Union Street choir since she was a teen-ager, will celebrate her 52nd birthday Thursday, the day the group arrives in Vienna.

"We are just spreading God's message further," Wars said. "No matter what you are going through, God and music will give you joy."

The choir had its final rehearsal at the church Saturday.

"The way this choir is sounding we won't need any more practice," Byrd said. "They are really an all-star team, better than any musicians I have had."

The singers are not nervous, just excited.

"We are just a bunch of people doing God's work through music," Byrd said. "It doesn't take money to pull this off, just faith in God."

The trip costs about $1,500 for each traveler, but the choir has raised $15,000 to defray expenses.

Once the group decided to go, Byrd began writing for grants. He secured $1,000 each from the Carroll County Arts Council and the Baltimore-Washington United Methodist Foundation.

At recent concerts, Byrd asked congregations to contribute "as much as the Lord leads them to give." St. Paul's United Church of Christ donated $1,400. Common Ground, a music and arts festival at the college, donated proceeds from its Gospel Extravaganza.

"God is giving a small black church this opportunity to show the world Union Street and its community," Byrd said.

Pub Date: 12/16/96

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