At a Gospel Meets Symphony chorus rehearsal Feb. 9 at Mount Calvary Baptist Church, more than 170 voices yelled out on cue, greeting guest conductor Eric Benjamin with the word “Freude!” before they launched into singing Beethoven’s Ode to Joy in German.
The German word, which means joy, was a special one that encapsulates all that Gospel Meets Symphony has come to mean since the event first brought the Akron Symphony Orchestra together with a massive chorus of local gospel singers in 1994. Gospel Meets Symphony, a beloved annual concert that bridges diverse communities in Akron, will celebrate its 20th anniversary concert Saturday at E.J. Thomas Hall with a lineup that celebrates some of the concerts’ greatest musical moments over the last 19 years.
This year, 172 will sing in the choir, including 21 who sang in the inaugural 1994 concert.
Benjamin, who previously served as an assistant conductor under the late Maestro Alan Balter, attended a thank you banquet early this month at the Akron Urban League celebrating all who have been involved with Gospel Meets Symphony over the years.
The conductor, who did orchestral arranging for guest gospel music group Divine Hope for the first Gospel Meets Symphony concert, remembers being impressed with the power of the Gospel Meets Symphony chorus.
“I was, in many respects, all respects, blown away,” said Benjamin, who did arranging for the choir and created gospel orchestral scores from scratch for the symphony in the event’s early years.
“With this choir, this kind of energy, we’ve got to do a classical piece,” he told Balter, looking ahead to the next year’s concert.
“Good, because you’re going to do it,” Balter told Benjamin.
In 1995, the second year for Gospel Meets Symphony, Benjamin taught the gospel choir Beethoven’s Ode to Joy from the finale of his Ninth Symphony.
“It became just one of my life’s greatest experiences, sharing this music with them [the chorus],” an emotional Benjamin said at the Gospel Meets Symphony dinner celebration Feb. 2.
Benjamin, who now lives in Alliance and is music conductor of the Tuscarawas Philharmonic, taught Akron’s gospel choir members to sing in German for a classical piece that had been foreign to them.
“We could sort of meet and communicate in the music,” Benjamin said. “It wasn’t a matter of ‘I play in your yard, you come in mine.’ We discovered it was all ours.
“To make music with somebody, it’s more than understanding. You feel their heartbeat,” Benjamin said of Gospel Meets Symphony’s wonderful synergy.
For years afterward, when Benjamin walked through the mall or elsewhere, he’d hear the word “Freude!” ring out when Gospel Meets Symphony chorus members spotted him.
“I’d be greeted that way in public,”’ Benjamin said.
Gospel Meets Symphony was conceived in 1991 as a minority outreach initiative of the Akron Symphony. A symphony task force led by Ann Lane Gates and board member Edward Metzger wanted to interest more minority students and audiences in attending classical concerts and playing classical music.
Gates, who chaired the inaugural event and continued in that role for six years, had heard a Martin Luther King Day concert of gospel choirs performing with the Cleveland Orchestra. She believed that “Akron could do it better” and Balter, who had conducted similar concerts with the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, agreed.
The first Gospel Meets Symphony concert, held at the Akron Civic Theatre, featured more than 125 singers from 37 Akron churches. The inaugural concert was a fundraiser to support the orchestra’s commissioning and recording of three new orchestral works by African-American composers David Baker, William Banfield and Billy Childs, which combined symphonic music with jazz and African influences.
At the concert’s milestone banquet earlier this month, Gates, a former administrator for the Akron Public Schools, greeted the crowd as “history makers” who are “an important part of history in Akron.”
In 1993, Gates, who serves as honorary chairwoman for this year’s Gospel Meets Symphony, enlisted the help of Cleo Myricks, minister of music emeritus at the Arlington Church of God, to serve as choir director for the inaugural 1994 concert.
“Cleo Myricks is the dean of choir directors in Akron,” Gates said.
Myricks, who served for 41 years as music minister at her church, remembered Balter visiting her at her home in preparation for the first Gospel Meets Symphony event.
“We went through some music and it was just a marvelous acquaintanceship,” she said.
For this year’s concert, she will return to direct the choir in the Richard Smallwood song Total Praise.
“These people give up their Saturdays and they sing and they’re happy doing it,” Myricks said at rehearsal, where she was greeted enthusiastically by chorus members.
“This was a like a treat today. I have had 100 kisses.”
The concert sold out the first year and again the following year. In 1996, it was a two-concert event. In 1998, the orchestra community was devastated by the death of 53-year-old Balter. Benjamin conducted Gospel Meets Symphony that year, followed by a number of guest conductors before current symphony Music Director Christopher Wilkins took up the baton.
“This guy had so much rhythm and we saw it,” Gates said of Wilkins.
Wilkins said Akron’s merging of gospel music concerts with the orchestra is unique for its emphasis on community.
“It isn’t just a concert of music from a multitude of traditions. The music is a tool for bringing people together and inviting wholehearted participation with us,” he said.
This year’s program will feature reprises of numerous Gospel Meets Symphony favorites from over the years. They include Genesis, sung by the students of YEPAW, Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, and Victory by Chuck Myricks Jr. of the Akron gospel group Divine Hope, which will reunite for the 20th anniversary concert.
Divine Hope, led by Myricks Jr., Cleo Myricks’ son, has not performed together since 2000, when the group traveled to South Africa, he said. On Saturday, all 11 original performers as well as the group’s sound man will be featured in this year’s event. They are Chuck Myricks, Leslie Parker Barnes, Valorie Brinson, Carla Davis, John Christopher Davis, Stan Davis, Sam Gordon, Victor Head, Robin Parker, Theodis Sheppard, Clint Walton and Anthony Watters.
Chuck Myricks said he was tickled to recently see the original score of his piece Victory, arranged by Benjamin and signed by him, Balter and former symphony general manager Connie Linsler.
“Up until that day, none of my music had been set in an orchestral setting,” Chuck Myricks said. “And for us to experience that was expansive.
“We were capable of what we call laying down some pretty nice grooves, but when we got involved with the orchestra, it stretched us even more.
“We were so fascinated at the power of an orchestral setting to set mood and communicate what the music was trying to say, even at deeper levels than the instrumentation we had available to us. And so everybody’s world got bigger and better,” he said.
Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.