Gospel music was not born in a hallowed concert hall. It originated hundreds of years ago as an oral tradition, giving voice to the trials and convictions specific to the African-American experience.
Now in its 20th year, the Boston Pops’ Gospel Night is a testament to how much the genre has adapted to modern tastes in music. Contemporary gospel, the sanctimonious kind you’d expect to hear at a megachurch in the South, was largely the focus of Saturday night’s performance at Symphony Hall.
With Charles Floyd conducting, the Boston Pops Orchestra welcomed two guest singers who essentially represented different strains of gospel.
Melinda Doolittle, who rose to fame as a finalist during season six of “American Idol,” worked in the old-school tradition. Her interpretation of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (listed on the program as “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing”) was a model of stately reverence, at once spiritual and sophisticated. Sometimes called “The Negro National Anthem,” the song led some audience members to stand in salute.
Doolittle had a keen understanding of how her voice should function in an orchestral setting. On “I Won’t Let Go,” she even had a playful chemistry with Floyd, egging him on as she reached the song’s joyous climax.
The evening’s other special guest also came from a talent-show background. Crystal Aikin won the first season of “Sunday Best,” the BET network’s gospel singing competition. Where Doolittle seemed moved more by the music’s spirit, Aikin was concerned with the holy message at hand. She was more preacher than performer on “He’s So Worthy” and “I Desire More.”
The final portion of the program was devoted to the Boston Pops Gospel Choir, a mixed group of ages and races decked out in black and white ensembles. They stood reverently at the back of the hall, singing out over the orchestra and soloists. At various points, the sound was so thunderous, the music’s sense of uplift was lost in the mix.
Then again, gospel isn’t just beholden to entertainment value. It’s about expression, religious and otherwise, and there was at least one person in the house who was grateful that Gospel Night has taken root in a venue so far removed from the music’s roots.
“We spent so much time wondering if this would become a tradition,” said Floyd, obviously humbled that it has.