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Gospel sans strings

All-Atlanta Chorus resonates when ASO vacates

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SYMPHONY HALL, DEC. 15 -- The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra's Gospel Christmas has remained one of the most popular concerts of the year for the past decade -- this despite the fact that the orchestra itself is not only presented to great disadvantage, but is entirely unnecessary and even distracting.

It doesn't take a Music 101 course to figure out that the authentic sounds of gospel don't go well with violins. Whenever the orchestra left the stage, the All-Atlanta Chorus (made up from nine local choirs) made the hall resonate powerfully with the real thing. But alas, when the orchestra came back, they -- and the singers -- seemed uncomfortable, and it showed in the performance.

It's no wonder. Much of the evening was an uncomfortable mix of styles that did not blend. The orchestra's participation diluted the musical authenticity of the arrangements (and often drowned out the singers as well). The best of the symphonic arrangements -- although still at times a bewildering mish-mash of classical symphony and rhythm & blues -- was Kirk Franklin's "The Night that Christ Was Born," largely effective due to the always enjoyable classical guitar playing of orchestra violinist Juan Ramirez.

Otherwise, a mish-mash it remained as long as the orchestra stayed onstage. A bizarre piece of programming came in the performance of Miklos Rozsa's Symphonic Suite from the movie King of Kings. Why, in a gospel concert? Guest conductor Charles Floyd explained that it was a favorite score of his, but even his enthusiasm couldn't justify the oddity of its inclusion. It was like putting a camel in the middle of Ga. 400. Nonetheless, the orchestra played it with great style and finesse -- the ASO's one good moment of the evening.

When the chorus lost the orchestra at intermission, they seemed to come alive, and things got real. Director Sallie Parrish, who founded the All-Atlanta Chorus, has been doing the Gospel Christmas concerts since the beginning, and she knows how to warm up her audience. Standing under the holiday greenery in their festive red robes, backed by a small combo of electric keyboard, percussion and blues guitar, her group beguiled the crowd into thinking it was attending a tent revival -- and enjoying it hugely. Clapping their hands and occasionally jumping up and down, the normally staid audience gave standing ovations to the well-chosen soloists from Parrish's choir -- particularly Katie Graham, who delivered an earth-shattering belt in "Angels Watching Over Me." Soloist Johnny Brown was a stand-out (as he is every year) in his traditional performance of "Go Tell It on the Mountain," where he spun out an improvisational gospel cadenza of praise that seemed to go on for 20 terrific minutes, to the delight of the crowd.

The orchestra returned for one last, uncomfortable juxtaposition of styles in "Christmas Medley," arranged by conductor Floyd, whose deft, enthusiastic direction still couldn't make the piece musically -- or technically -- sound. But perhaps one of the best moments of the evening came after the concert was over. As the audience left their seats, a few of the choir members softly began an impromptu, a cappella performance of "Amen" as they filed offstage. The audience joined in, creating a lovely musical moment -- and reminding us that, even in gospel music, sometimes simplicity is best.

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