Gospel music relies so fundamentally on presence, on a connection close enough to create the sense of community made manifest, that a performance without it can feel cut off at the knees. But with guest conductor Charles Floyd shepherding his annual Gospel Night, that’s how the Boston Pops closed out its season Saturday at Symphony Hall. Despite a sold-out audience eager to take in some joyful noise, almost the entire concert seemed to happen at a remove.
The opening segment began with the regal fanfare of Mendelssohn’s “War March of the Priests” and ended with treacly excerpts from Floyd’s own “The Song of Solomon,” a work in progress led by Samuel Moscoso’s undistinguished tenor. Better was the light, scampering “Bacchanale” from Saint-Saëns”s “Samson and Delilah,’’ with tiptoeing Arabian lines played first by the woodwinds and then, once the piece grew fervent, the whole orchestra.
Take 6 provided the concert’s strongest segment, largely because the vocal group was front and center enough to make the orchestra’s distance irrelevant. Typically an a cappella act, the singers shone when given the opportunity to show off their origami-like harmonies, whether on the mischievous jazz swing and layered scatting on Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile” or the fierce cutting contest between brothers Joey and Mark Kibble on the rollicking “Mary.” But only on the tender “Lullaby’’ were the Pops well integrated, with strings weaving in and out of the group’s complex vocals. Otherwise, Take 6’s arrangements left little room for the orchestra, whose accompaniment to “He Never Sleeps” was largely inaudible.
Things didn’t improve after a second intermission. The orchestra sounded oddly distant from most of the soloists’ leads, and the hundred or so singers of the Boston Pops Gospel Choir sounded farther back still, muddling things even more. The microphones might have been a problem, as several soloists were spirited but incomprehensible. But Floyd’s orchestrations also seemed too busy for the material, especially faster songs such as “It's About Time for a Miracle,” whose speed worked against them.
Everything did connect for Katani Sumner's testifying “I Go To The Rock,” which featured a simple gospel band: piano, organ, bass and drums. No orchestra needed.Marc Hirsh can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @spacecitymarc.