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December 7, 2006


Chorale Visits Bright Hope Baptist Church

singing chorale members

About half of the 160 students, faculty and community singers of the Bryn Mawr-Haverford Chorale rose early on a Sunday morning in November to board the R5 commuter train to North Philadelphia. The Chorale had been invited to sing at one of Philadelphia's leading black churches, the 7,000-member Bright Hope Baptist, just a few blocks from Temple University's main campus.

The Chorale is so large a choir that it doesn't often go on the road, but this semester was an exception. Under the direction of Associate Professor of Music Thomas Lloyd, the choir is preparing for a performance of selections from Duke Ellington's groundbreaking Sacred Concerts, on Sunday, Dec. 10, in Haverford's Marshall Auditorium at 3 p.m. (see related story). The singers will be accompanied by a professional big band assembled by bassist Tryone Brown, including trumpeter Cecil Bridgewater. They had also recently been inspired by a master class for student soloists and an appearance in the full choir's rehearsal by DeVonne Gardner, a Philadelphia native and one of the original lead soloists when Ellington toured the world with his Sacred Concerts in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

DeVonne Gardner

In her sessions with the students, Gardner had lamented the fact that Ellington's Sacred Concerts, representing the first major effort to bring American jazz into the sanctuary, had struggled to find acceptance in both the church and the concert hall in spite of, or perhaps because of, its great originality. Ellington drew on a lifetime of churchgoing, attending both the Baptist Church of his mother's family and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church of his father. Inspired late in his life by the death of his close collaborator Billy Strayhorn, Ellington turned out music of striking range and depth, often to his own words.

The texts he composed were not in the typical "holy" language of the church, but in more the colloquial language he would use with his fellow musicians. "Every man prays in his own language, and there is no language that God does not understand" was the text for one of his final compositions. But the association of jazz with the night club, considered a loose moral environment by many churchgoers, made churches reluctant to include this music in their worship.

DeVonne Gardner

On this occasion, the Chorale was part of Bright Hope's monthly "Collegiate Sunday," when area college choirs (though usually much smaller than this one) are invited to perform. The group sang an unaccompanied setting of the Lord's Prayer from the third and final Sacred Concert and a rousing gospel-inflected setting of the text "Will you be there? / Ain't but the One," with Haverford senior John Bower as the "preaching" tenor soloist. The congregation listened intently and greeted both selections with enthusiastic applause and "amens."

For many of the students, this was their first visit to a black church, and they were treated to a rousing post-election sermon by senior pastor and former nine-term Democratic congressman Rev. Dr. William Gray III, whose father and grandfather had been pastors at Bright Hope before him. Gray sounded forth on the dangers of hypocrisy and the need for forgiveness. Bryn Mawr student Beth Curtiss '10 said later, "As a non-Christian I was a little nervous going into the [service] I felt really comfortable with the broader concepts that the pastor talked about in the sermon. I think people of all faiths and no faith can agree that we humans are not the most important force in the universe and that we have a responsibility to be true to ourselves, to try to do as much good as we can in whatever way we can, and to be humble towards the grandeur of God or the universe or whatever we want to call it."

After the sermon and the traditional altar call, where many in the congregation came forward to pray more intently together for special needs, Gray leaned over to director Lloyd and asked "Have you got one more?" Knowing that soprano DeVonne Gardner was in the congregation that morning, Lloyd furtively hustled out into the pews to find Gardner while people were returning to their seats and the church pianist played on. "Pastor Gray wants one more would you be up for singing 'Come Sunday' with us?" he asked.

"Always the epitome of graciousness, and eager for any chance to share this music which is so close to her heart, Gardner obliged, much to the delight and surprise of the choir, which had only one chance to rehearse this particular arrangement two weeks before," Lloyd says. The choir made its way to the center from the choir stalls and Gardner found the microphone as the congregation settled in. As she sang the words "Lord, dear Lord above, God of mercy, God of love, please look down and see my people through," Lloyd noticed that members of the congregation closed their eyes and sank into deep meditation.

As the service ended, the choir was escorted to the church's youth center, where they were served a home-cooked fried chicken dinner, with, as Lloyd notes, "smiles all around at their good fortune to have been received so warmly by a vibrant community with a rich history and love of music."

— as reported by Chorale Director Thomas Lloyd


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