“Come on, we’re going to church, OK?,” announced CeCe Winans upon taking the Symphony Hall stage, but it’s not as though anyone needed the reminder. For 25 years, Gospel Night has been a mainstay of the Boston Pops, and Saturday’s near-capacity crowd came prepared to join Winans, conductor Charles Floyd, and Dennis L. Slaughter’s massive choir in closing out the season with a sustained burst of jubilation.
With its overlapping brass harmonies, Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” established an anchor that the program’s first portion would reflect back upon more than once. Its lack of strings made the rich swirl of violins and cellos in Bach’s “Fugue in G minor” all the headier. And the presidential horn line at the top of John Williams’s “Let the Word Go Forth: JFK in His Own Words” drew instant connections to the Copland piece, while the Rev. Brandon Thomas Crowley’s reading of Kennedy’s words spoke to the civil rights struggles of African-Americans and the necessity of the separation of church and state, topics still furiously relevant five and a half decades after they were first spoken.
Winans’s brief, 25-minute performance was long enough to offer a counterargument to the notion that gospel need be a musical genre, rather than a topic and a degree of fervor. Purely in musical and melodic terms, the lush and lovely “Let Them Fall in Love” would have fit snugly within the Great American Songbook, while both “Run to Him” — featuring roller-rink piano, handclaps, Philly-soul strings, and a girl-group sway — and “Peace From God” recalled the pop sophistication of Dionne Warwick. But whether on those or the songs that fell more obviously within the gospel and Christian-pop style, Winans’s voice was strong and clear and rippled with conviction as she beamed throughout.
Following Winans, the focus shifted to the choir and its soloists, though the audience’s role also grew. The controlled but fiery Norris V. Welch — whose soft, creamy baritone was set against the swelling choir and supper-club strings of “Perfect Peace” — was greeted with shouts of “Sing, Norris!” And Katani Sumner was terrific and the crowd knew it, shouting its approval; the jazzy, free-time intro of “When Sunday Comes” was simply her fluttery alto and a piano circling each other until the drums, organ, and bass finally joined in.
Floyd and the orchestra took their bows to a gospelized, swinging “Hallelujah” chorus, turned into a song of testifying. But the music didn’t stop, with Slaughter taking the reins for a friskier and freewheeling “Oh Happy Day” that transformed into a double-time organ-quartet raveup that kept going even when, several times, it appeared to be winding down. The spirit, it would seem, didn’t want to let go.
The 25th Annual Gospel Night At Pops with CeCe Winans
At Symphony Hall, June 17Marc Hirsh can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @spacecitymarc.