Sacred music gala sings glory to God

Spirits were inspired as voices and instruments lifted praise to God during the third annual gala concert of sacred music Feb. 2.

More than 1,700 people gathered in the Nancy Lee and Perry R. Bass Performance Hall to enjoy the talents of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra in concert with the 225-voice Southwestern Seminary Oratorio Chorus under the direction of C. David Keith, chairman of the seminary’s department of conducting and choral activities.

The gala is one of the main features of the annual Church Music Workshop organized by supporters, staff and faculty of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s School of Church Music.

Stephen Johnson, dean of the School of Church Music, was pleased with the performances. He noted that the annual workshop and the opportunity Southwestern Seminary music students have to perform in the Southwestern Oratorio Chorus were two of the main reasons he came to Southwestern a year ago.

“The gala was a unique opportunity to turn Bass Hall into a sanctuary for one evening,” Johnson said. “I was especially happy to see our music students take their music to a professional level in the Oratorio Chorus and still perform it from the heart.”

The program contained classic Christian hymns,  several secular pieces and a touch of congregational singing.

The evening began with the chorus and orchestra leading as the audience sang Isaac Watts’ beloved hymn “Oh God, Our Help in Ages Past.” Tenor Scot Cameron, a graduate of Southwestern Seminary, was the featured soloist in Felix Mendelssohn’s “O Come, Let Us Worship.” Soprano Lynda Poston-Smith sang solo during the Oratorio Chorus’ full-throated rendition of “How Can I Keep From Singing,” written and arranged by William Mac Davis, the award-winning associate dean for the performance division in Southwestern Seminary’s church music school.

For many audience members, a highlight of the evening was gospel harpist Greg Buchanan. Playing a custom-built, eye-catching, Art Deco blue modified Salzedo harp like an athlete pressing toward the prize, Buchanan introduced many listeners to the tender strains and booming declarations of that instrument for the first time.

The connection Buchanan made with even the youngest audience members was demonstrated when he played his own arrangement of “Amazing Grace” with “Jesus Loves Me.” As he played the simple, tender notes of “Jesus Loves Me,” several small children nearby could be heard singing along, tentatively encouraged by their somewhat surprised parents.

Parker Webb, a student from Greensboro, N.C., enrolled in The College at Southwestern, connected with Buchanan’s presentation, too.

“I loved it,” Webb said. “I think that’s the first time I ever cried during ‘Jesus Loves Me.’”

Organist Albert Travis provided a rich, robust foundation for several numbers. Travis is a distinguished professor in the seminary’s church music school, and chair of the organ department.

One piece to which Travis lent his talents was the final movement of Camille Saint-Saëns’ “Maestro; Allegro (from Symphony No. 3 in C Minor).”

Emily Turner is a student at The Master’s College in Santa Clarita, Calif. She came to Fort Worth with a group of 25 students to attend the Church Music Workshop. Turner said she is interested in “world music” and would someday like to work with people in Africa to develop indigenous music into a useful form of worship.

“I just really appreciated the piece by Dr. Davis,” Turner said. “It was just beautiful.” She also said that Buchanan’s performance showed a “good mix of rhythm and dissonance.”

During the second half, the chorus and orchestra were in full synch with the audience, and the musicians were hitting their stride. Buchanan had toes tapping with a lively version of the old time gospel song “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho.” A full orchestration, choral and congregational rendering of Mack Wilberg’s arrangement of “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing” brought tears to the eyes of some audience members.

With a standing finale of the always-popular “Hallelujah” chorus from Georg Frideric Handel’s “Messiah,” the gala of sacred music was drawn to a close with sustained applause.

Two music professors from California were in attendance at the gala. Carolyn Simons is associate professor of musicology, and Claire Blackwell is associate professor of hand bells at The Master’s College.

“I really enjoyed the gala,” Simons said. “It was a full performance with lots of variety. The hymn arrangements were outstanding. And the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus and the other congregational songs really seemed to resonate with the audience.”

Blackwell agreed. “The integration of the audience was more than just a token,” she said. “It felt like we were a real part of it.”

Blackwell was particularly impressed that the organizers had provided the music and words to the “Hallelujah” chorus in the program materials.

“Having the music in hand made it feel like we were able to really sing it well,” Blackwell said.

Few gala participants were as happy as C. David Keith whose career at the seminary spans more than 25 years. He has become a key part in the Fort Worth arts community in his role as chorus master of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra.

“I thought the gala was a tremendous success,” Keith said. “It seems that over the past three years the response has grown. As a result, I would hope that the seminary, better than any other institution, could help people know, find and communicate with God through music. To be able to do this in an environment such as Bass Performance Hall with the Fort Worth Symphonic Orchestra and Oratorio Chorus provides great expectation. I would hope that the Fort Worth-Dallas Metroplex would hope and desire that this event becomes a way to communicate with God together.”

Established 1908 Fort Worth, Texas