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Soloist Victoria Pines practiced with the North City Deanery Choir Jan. 5 at the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis. The choir will perform Jan. 18 as part of ‘Joyous Jubilee,’ three evenings of sacred, spiritual and Gospel music, sponsored by Cathedral Concerts.
Soloist Victoria Pines practiced with the North City Deanery Choir Jan. 5 at the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis. The choir will perform Jan. 18 as part of ‘Joyous Jubilee,’ three evenings of sacred, spiritual and Gospel music, sponsored by Cathedral Concerts.

Joyous Jubilee concert series to celebrate African American influence in music

Three-part series at Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis to feature sacred, spiritual and Gospel music

The American Spiritual Ensemble’s upcoming performance with Cathedral Concerts in February to kick off Black History Month was the impetus to take the celebration not just one — but two steps further.

Cathedral Concerts has announced “Joyous Jubilee: Music to Lift the Soul,” three evenings of sacred, spiritual and Gospel music at the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis. The series will feature the North City Deanery Choir on Jan. 18; the Gospel Symphonic Choir on Jan. 25; and the final performance by the American Spiritual Ensemble on Feb. 1.

Cathedral Concerts executive director Scott Kennebeck noted that there was a desire to bridge the two weeks between MLK Day and the beginning of Black History Month. He turned to Joyce Jones — a friend and longtime member of several St. Louis choirs over the years — who made arrangements with the North City Deanery and Gospel Symphonic choirs, both of whom are based in St. Louis.

“They jumped at the chance, which I am very grateful for,” Kennebeck said. “We’re excited to have them come and sing concerts here.”

North City Deanery Choir

Some members of the North City Deanery Choir have sung together for years, although the group as it exists now has been around for the better part of a year, under the co-direction of Danny DuMaine, choir director at St. Alphonsus “Rock” Parish in north St. Louis, and Simeon Layne Jr., director of music at St. Augustine Parish in north St. Louis.

The choir was formed out of an effort of the archdiocesan Interracial Relations Committee, which last year sponsored a speakers series. The series culminated with a deanerywide revival at Sts. Teresa and Bridget Church last May, featuring a performance by the choir, which includes members of Catholic parishes in the North City Deanery and others.

Layne said that the majority of the choir’s music is contemporary gospel, with songs featuring a fusion of traditional, spirituals, jazz, blues and classical repertoires. DuMaine, a composer and writer, has composed numerous original songs, including “In the Arms of the Lord,” which will be performed at the cathedral basilica concert.

The choir “sings from the heart, from the soul,” Layne said. “It’s about God — everything is about God. Every time they sing they take themselves to the place of the throne. They’re with Jesus at the table, and it’s another moment with Christ. They come expecting to receive Christ in another way.”

Gospel Symphonic Choir

The St. Louis-based Gospel Symphonic Choir has been around the for better part of a quarter century, according to director Dello Thedford. The group formed from a variety of people, including choir members at Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church in East St. Louis, Ill., where he previously was minister of music; and Jennings High School alumni. Thedford is performing arts director with the Jennings School District and choral director at the high school.

“I am just really delighted we are part of this series,” Thedford said. “What we do is all for the greater glory of God. Period. We even say no man gets the glory … but that God gets the glory of everything.”

Thedford described the choir a blend of classical and the influence of small African American churches, “where people harmonized and made up their own harmonies.” Having experienced that latter style in his childhood, Thedford said “it was very fulfilling spiritually to the congregation.”

The choir explores songs such as “Jesus Loves Me” — which will be featured at the concert at the cathedral basilica — which Thedford described as having a “simple melody, but we sing it in a classical way. There are some jazz idioms in the accompaniment, and further in the song it has some gospel like chords that bring a lot of attention to the listener in a very fulfilling way.

“What I have taken is simple hymns with a classical feel but soulful feel,” Thedford said. “I like to refer to my gospel music as refined gospel music.”

American Spiritual Ensemble

The American Spiritual Ensemble describes its mission as keeping the American Negro spiritual alive. It has performed concerts worldwide, including at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and the Metropolitan Opera and Radio City Music Hall, both in New York.

The group’s repertoire ranges from classic spirituals to jazz and Broadway numbers and dance, all highlighting the Black experience. More than 90 percent of its members are soloists who have sung in theaters and opera houses worldwide. The ensemble was founded in 1995 by Everett McCorvey, professor of voice and director of opera at the University of Kentucky in Lexington.

This isn’t the first time McCorvey has been to St. Louis, having served as master clinician at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis with its Artist in Training program. However, this will be the first time the American Spiritual Ensemble will have performed at the cathedral basilica, as part of the group’s multi-city winter tour. While in St. Louis, the group also will present a master class with students in the Jennings School District, working with Thedford of the Gospel Symphonic Choir.

“St. Louis has such a wonderful, rich tradition in vocal music, opera and voice, and we are excited about that,” said McCorvey, speaking from a rehearsal in New York.

McCorvey described the ensemble as having a “full, rich sound,” which was influenced by visiting choirs he heard during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, growing up in Montgomery, Ala. With his training in opera, McCorvey engages members of the ensemble to create what he described as “a very unique sound, with a full voice.”

The ensemble, he said, preserves the tradition of the “pure voice” found in the original Negro spirituals. “I grew up on spirituals — the folk songs of the slaves, that tell the story of our heritage,” he said. “These songs were born in this country during slavery, but they are for everyone now.”

The spirituals that the ensemble sings are arrangements of some of these original simple melodies, either in a capella style or with piano, for example. “But no drums or amplification — just pure voice,” he said. “We are working to preserve the tradition of a capella and simple melodies and beautiful arrangements and beautiful voices.”

>>Joyful Jubilee concert series

Cathedral Concerts presents “Joyous Jubilee: Music to Lift the Soul,” three evenings of sacred, spiritual and Gospel music. All performances are on Friday evenings, beginning at 8 p.m., at the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis, Lindell Boulevard and Newstead Avenue.

• Friday, Jan. 18: An evening of contemporary gospel music featuring the North City Deanery Choir. The concert is free and open to the public;

• Friday, Jan. 25: An evening of sacred music featuring Dello Thedford and the Gospel Symphonic Choir. The concert is free and open to the public.

• Friday, Feb. 1: An evening with American Spiritual Ensemble. Tickets are $19, $29 and $42. (Use code jubilee for a 50 percent discount.) Group rates are available. For more information, call (314) 533-7662 or visit cathedralconcerts.org.

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