As artistic director of the Universal Gospel Choir (UGC) and Minister of Music at the Canadian Memorial Church, Lonnie Delisle might have introduced more yuletide gospel music and sound level variations into the program he compiled for The Magic of Yule.
The voices of the singers were so strong they didn’t need the heavy-duty sound system to augment them and their accompanying six-piece band that included organ, keyboards, bass, drums, guitar and violin. There were times when the sound was so loud the rafters of the Canadian Memorial Church vibrated and actually made eardrums ache.
A welcome respite came in the first half of the concert with beautiful Hebrew music written by Nurit Hirsch, arranged by John Leavitt and adapted by Delisle, with words by Ehud Manor. This sensitive rendition of Bashana Haba’ah was accompanied by Ellen Douglas on violin. More in a similar vein would have been welcome.
The remainder of the first half consisted of some favourite titles, including Joy to the World and Good King Wenceslas. But the additional and altered lyrics of some and jazz and swing adaptations of others jarred at times.
When enslaved African Americans originally sang these spirituals, their renditions came from their core. Their very souls. It was Soul Music. The rich intensity of the music must come from within if it’s going to move mountains. Otherwise, it’s mere imitation and no matter how loudly it’s sung or how hard people clap and sway, it signifies little.
The second half of the program was more varied. It opened with the rich timbre of male voices, a capella, singing Great Day. Two full-throated soloists, Matt Westphal and Josh Andallo, sang without microphones. It deservedly brought the house down – no disrespect is intended in this context. (The phrase, “brought the house down,” is said by such theatrical aficionados as Sir Michael Caine, to originate in the liquor-licensed entertainment establishments of London England. When an entertainer was so good no one drank the beer, the barman of ‘the house’ had to bring down the shutters. There is another explanation that the house literally fell down, but it’s not half as much fun as Sir Michael’s.)
The tribute to Harriet Tubman, abolitionist and conductor of the Underground Railroad that brought slaves seeking freedom to Canada, was powerful. Walter Robinson’s song, featured in the film Harriet, was sung solely by the women’s section of the choir. But the volume from the use of microphones by the soloists masked the fine quality of their voices.
Deep River was the only song in the program that truly resonated as a traditional spiritual, sung as first intended.
Delisle’s original composition, Peace Come Reign, was more about the disappointment of recurring wars when peace is the goal. It seemed more appropriate for Remembrance Day than the Magic of Yule. In fact, Delisle wrote both the words and music to highlight the futility of war and intended it for November 11th.
The program ended with Go Tell It on the Mountain, delivered energetically and deafeningly by both the choir and the full band. Most of the audience stood, swayed and joined in with clapping and singing, obviously inspired.
While the UGC’s energy was high and undoubtedly heartfelt, it would have been more uplifting for this reviewer had those beautiful voices, raised in joy and praise, come from a more deeply reflective source. Standing still, as in the show-stopping Great Day, may have been more impactful.