Something to be proud of in Baltimore: the City College Choir

After moving to Baltimore in January of last year, my wife, who has family in the area, and I committed to settling down and to giving our all to contributing to this community. One of our first steps was to begin attending local events to learn about what and who is out there. We were asking ourselves: How can we be supportive of their efforts and celebrate what’s already happening?

That question is what led me to attend the Baltimore City College Choir’s “Annual Knight of Music Concert” earlier this month. I had recently had coffee with their director, Marcus D. Smith, and wanted to support his work as a local music educator and church musician.

I am a trained music educator with a masters in sacred music with a concentration in choral conducting. I have presented at national conferences of choir directors and attended countless concerts of every age and skill-level choir. And, to be frank, I’ve heard so many mediocre and outright bad concerts that when I attend an event where I’m not sure what the quality will be, I prepare myself for the worst — it’s better to be pleasantly surprised than to have high expectations dashed. I hadn’t been to a choir concert in Baltimore yet, so as I sat down to take in the show, I reminded myself to keep an open mind and spirit. (I did know that the keyboard playing would be fantastic because the accompanist William Patrick Alston’s reputation as a classical and gospel organist preceded him.)

The concert began with a wall of sound that was intense but well balanced. It was a good start, but singing loudly isn’t what makes for great art, so I didn’t know what else was to come. The rest of the concert showed artistry from the students in many unexpected and truly joyful ways. The repertoire was eclectic and yet managed to have a certain flow so that nothing in the program was jarring. A classic concertized spiritual by Jester Hairston was followed by a modern piece by the strong black woman composer Ysaye Barnwell. A gospel arrangement of Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring” was a delightful performance that blended the beautiful baroque accompaniment with a gospel chorus expertly sung by the concert choir. That was followed by a French chanson selection by contemporary composer Morten Lauridsen, which was immediately followed by another black female composer’s concertized “Sit Down Servant.” Classical, contemporary, French, gospel — it was all done well.

The culminating set of gospel music selections brought the house down. This is where the group truly shined, but not because their execution of the music was any more or less well done. They shone because that is when the students took ownership of the music. That was the moment I realized the true beauty of the evening. The director, Mr. Smith, had been teaching these kids all year (and some for all four years of their high school careers), but he wasn’t just teaching them how to sing. Like any great teacher, he was teaching them how to be artists, how to take pride in themselves, and how to work together for something greater than the individual. This was showcased in the articulate speeches of gratitude the students gave to Mr. Smith, in the student conductor leading his peers with passion and skill, in the number of alumni who joined the choir on stage for “Let It Rise” by William Murphy, and by the skillful accompaniment graduating senior Corey Smith Jr. provided next to Mr. Alston at the keyboard all evening.

Does Baltimore have problems? You bet it does. But on this Saturday evening, I found something Baltimore can and should take pride in, support and celebrate: the Baltimore City College Choir.

Brian Hehn (brian@thehymnsociety.org) is director of The Center for Congregational Song for The Hymn Society in the United States and Canada. He lives in Mt. Washington.

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