REVIEW: Led by CeCe Winans, Boston Pops Gospel Night rings in a joyous 25 years

Over the past 25 years, Boston Pops Gospel Night has stood the test of time as a glorious and revered annual tradition.  An illuminated brass backdrop, shining music notes, and a floating, celluloid film strip adorned the Symphony Hall stage while an enthusiastic crowd filed in for this highly-anticipated, one night only, 25th anniversary event.

Each year, Gospel Night features a special blend of acclaimed musical guests, a variety of beloved and new songs from the Boston Pops Gospel Choir, and memorable performances.  With multiple Grammy Award-winning singer CeCe Winans, a resounding, patriotic, monumental speech about freedom and peace, and rousing performances from the Boston Pops Gospel Choir, the Boston Pops Gospel Night has certainly outdone itself.  It’s an annual concert with toe tapping reverence and a spirited finale that always brings the audience to its feet.  Click here for more information on the Boston Pops, upcoming events, and more.

Warmly greeting the crowd and the orchestra was accomplished conductor, pianist, and composer Charles Floyd, who has been conducting Gospel Night for the past 23 years.  Click here for a closer look at Charles Floyd and his career.  Distinguished looking in a white tuxedo with black pants and a bow tie, Charles Floyd gave an appreciative wave before opening the 25th anniversary concert with Aaron Copland’s spirited Fanfare for the Common Man, as horns blared distinct and clear.  It was a mix of tender, powerful, and upbeat melodies that included Bach’s Little Fugue in G Minor and Chadwick’s Jubilee, which culminated into a vigorous finish and wondrous applause.

Gospel Night also recognized what would have been the recent 100th birthday of the late President John F. Kennedy by paying tribute to him and also honoring award-winning conductor, John Williams, who was the subject of this year’s Boston Pops season.  Young and naturally charismatic Reverend Thomas Crowley who is Senior Pastor of Myrtle Baptist Church, passionately delivered JFK’s famous inaugural address, “Let the Word Go Forth,” a stirring and thrilling speech which remains especially prevalent today.  The audience was captivated as the Reverend spoke of freedom, peace, ambition, and achieving the American ideal of brotherhood as musical excerpts of John Williams film score, JFK and Celebration 2000: Journey of John Williams rose underneath.

Boston Pops CeCe_Winans

Legendary, Grammy award-winning Gospel singer CeCe Winans Photo courtesy of the Boston Pops

 

The excitement for multiple Grammy award-winning singer CeCe Winans was tangible.   Dressed in a black and multi-colored floral gown, Cece Winans took the stage to roaring applause.  CeCe Winans is a flawless soprano whose vocal tone at times is reminiscent of Whitney Houston.  CeCe and Whitney collaborated together for the uplifting song, Count on Me in 1996.  With a joyful warmth and tenderness and as the Boston Pops Gospel Choir swayed and clapped, CeCe performed an array of faith-filled songs from her latest album, Let Them Fall in Love such as Run to Him, Dancing in the Spirit, Peace from God, Never Have to Be Alone, and the title track.  “Welcome to church,” CeCe exclaimed as she gracefully took the stage.  Many of her songs spoke about finding hope in despair, forgiveness, and in the state of the world today, how much we are in need prayer.  She concluded with a beautiful cover of Fanny Crosby’s hymn, Blessed Assurance, bringing the crowd to their feet.

Featuring a number impassioned performances from talented soloists, Charles Floyd continued to lead the Boston Pops Gospel Choir.  Soloist Suzanne Buell and Raymond Martin opened with upbeat, jubilant renditions of Celebrate followed by Carolyn Saxon and David Grandy singing King of Kings.  A particular highlight was Katani Sumner’s powerful, expressive, and bluesy rendition of When Sunday Comes.  Katani’s smooth version of the song hinted of Ella Fitzgerald in its delivery.

Each year, Gospel Night offers a grand, spirit-fueled finale.  Led by The Boston Pops Gospel Choir Artistic Director Dennis L. Slaughter, it is a party that could go all night long, if only they could.  One of the biggest highlights of the evening came from soloist Renese King, who sang a tambourine-infused, rollicking rendition of the classic Gospel hymn, Oh Happy Day.  Oh, Happy 25th Anniversary indeed.

Renowned conductor Charles Floyd talks Boston Pops and Gospel Night’s 25th anniversary featuring CeCe Winans

For 25 years, the Boston Pops has made Gospel Night a highly-anticipated tradition.  A glorious, enthusiastic audience which includes newcomers and returning fans greet Conductor, pianist, and composer Charles Floyd, the Boston Pops Gospel Choir, and a selection of guest artists.  This year, multiple Grammy award-winning Gospel singer Cece Winans headlines this special 25th anniversary concert for one night only on Saturday, June 17 at Symphony Hall in Boston, Massachusetts.  Click here for more information and for tickets to this monumental concert event.

Renowned conductor, pianist, and composer Charles Floyd talks about his longtime role with Gospel Night and its evolution as well as dreams he never imagined coming true.

Charles Floyd leading the Boston Pops (Stu Rosner)

Renowned conductor, pianist, and composer Charles Floyd leading the Boston Pops Photo courtesy of Stu Rosner/Boston Pops

 

Sleepless Critic:  The Boston Pops Gospel is an incredible event each year.  The last time I went, it seemed like the Boston Pops Gospel Choir was a nonstop celebration, joyfully continuing even after the concert was over.

Charles Floyd:  Everybody looks forward to that part of the program because it is probably the most energetic.  The music can be very exciting and uplifting.  We like to feature something that the gospel choir performs without the orchestra.  The orchestra wants to go into overtime and that gets into an issue, but if the building is still open, there’s no reason why the choir can’t stay to do a couple more numbers if they enjoy singing and the audience is going to stick around.  When the formalities are done, it’s a nice moment when people can just let their hair down.

SC:  The concert is so uplifting you don’t want to leave anyway.  You have been with Gospel Night for 23 years, almost since its start.

CF:   I appeared the second year.  I was called because the conductor the first year could not do it the second year.  I had to take a year away back in 2004, so this is my 23rd and it’s their 25th, but I am celebrating 25 years just like they are.

SC:   It must be amazing to see how it has evolved over the years.

Gospel Night at the Boston Pops (Stu Rosner)

Gospel Night at the Boston Pops Photo courtesy of Stu Rosner/Boston Pops

CF:   It’s been an honor to be a part of it.  I was working with Miss Natalie Cole for close to 14 years.  We had done a few concerts with the Boston Pops, and at the time, Maestro Lockhart and I were in the running in some capacity to step in.  Keith got the gig and I was very happy for him.  It was great for the community and I was somewhat new, and so they called and asked if I had done that sort of thing.  I said I have and only had about 6 weeks’ notice to prepare.  It was little bit nerve-wracking to put together an entire program, write orchestration that didn’t exist, and then learn the classics and light classics on top of having to cater to guests artists.  We balanced out the program with Keith conducting the first part of the program and I conducted the 3rd part of the program, Rhapsody in Blue.  Keith had to be at Tanglewood and other places as the date of Gospel Night moved around.  That’s kind of how it happened.  When the door opens you walk through or the door might not open again and here we are.

SC:   Some of the best things happen spontaneously.  This year, CeCe Winans will be the featured artist on Saturday, June 25.  Do you have a hand in who performs each year?

CF:   I am involved in the process.  I don’t always have control over who the artist will be because a certain artist that I may want to work with may not be available, but they are nice enough at the Pops office to ask who they could look into.  They come up with their own ideas too.   We all put our cards on the table and explore the possibilities.  CeCe is big in the Gospel world and was available.   We’re really excited to have her as our guest.

Boston Pops CeCe_Winans

Legendary, Grammy award-winning Gospel singer CeCe Winans Photo courtesy of the Boston Pops

SC:  Will there be any surprises on this 25th anniversary celebration?

CF:  I don’t think I’ll be flying in from the balcony on a cable, but we do have a few things. (Laughs)  The first part of the program is mostly Americana.  We’ll start the program with Fanfare for The Common Man.  It recently would have been JFK’s 100th birthday.  Maybe the first part will feature the music of John Williams edited together and text added from the speeches of the late president JFK called, Let the Word go Forth.  Some of the music by John Williams will accompanying the narration is from the movie, JFK.  We are just going to celebrate a little Americana with CeCe Winans and the choir is going to perform some favorites over the past 25 years.  We may never get out of there. (Laughs)

SC:  It is fitting since the Boston Pops season is dedicated to John Williams this year.

CF:  Absolutely.  Tying the program together with Boston Pops tradition as well as the Gospel music tradition and its history has been a challenge and a lot of fun.  I look forward to it as well as some many other people.

Boston Pops John Williams leads Film Night, 6.6.14 (Stu Rosner)

Acclaimed composer and conductor John Williams leads Film Night Photo courtesy of Stu Rosner/Boston Pops

SC:  I’m glad you have been part of the Gospel Night tradition for 23 years and I know you performed all over the world.  Music has been a part of your life since you were 4.

CF:  That’s when I finally got to a piano.  I used to bang on cables and pretend like I was playing.  Everybody thought it was so cute.  By the time I got to a piano, I was 4 and I was already taking out melodies and ordering things by year.  It was another six months before I started taking formal lessons, but yeah, music has been a part of my entire life.

You never know what life is going to hold when you are young.  Just because you start playing the piano no matter how good or bad you are at it, there is no guarantee of what the future will hold.  I took physics and journalism just as a back up in high school, but once I got to college, I dedicated myself completely to music and didn’t try to be a master of all trades.  All through 10 years of conservatory and grad school, it was all piano.  I was not a conducting major and I found myself in a situation where a conductor was needed, I was the only person who could step in at the time, so I got serious about conducting.  I started studying all kinds of things such as opera, had to go through all the symphonies and all the major works of all the major composers.  I learned so much about accompanying singers with the baton from listening and attending operas.  I played for singers my entire life, but to watch a conductor accompany a singer is something I don’t think a lot of people really appreciate at least the way that I did and what I learned from it.  It’s been fun and as long as the work keeps coming in, that’s the greatest thing.  Just to keep going.

SC:  What have been your career highlights?  I understand you also performed Howard Shore’s The Lord of the Rings Symphony at his request.  That must have been tremendous.

Charles Floyd and Melinda Doolittle perform on a Gospel Night Program in 2010 (Stu Rosner)

Charles Floyd and Melinda Doolittle perform on Gospel Night in 2010. Photo courtesy of Stu Rosner/Boston Pops

CF:  I was trying to explain it to my sister and family not long ago.  People talk about having their dreams come true.  My situation is a little backwards.  It’s not a question of my dreams not coming true, but most everything that has transpired in my career were things I never dreamed of in the first place.  If I had said when I was eight years old that in 2017, I would be celebrating 25 years at Symphony Hall with the Boston Pops or working with an orchestra at Carnegie Hall with James Taylor and Sting or sitting at an event next to Harry Belafonte or conducting orchestras for Natalie Cole or playing the piano for somebody else.  These are usually once in a lifetime events and I’m grateful that they continue to happen.  New things are coming in all the time and I couldn’t be more grateful and happier.

Click here for Gospel Night tickets, call SymphonyCharge at 1-888-266-1200, or visit the Symphony Hall box office during business hours at 301 Massachusetts Ave in Boston, Massachusetts.  Follow The Boston Pops on Facebook and Twitter for updates.

Acclaimed choreographer Tony Williams talks innovative rock ballad, ‘Life: In Color’

David Bowie, Prince, and the Rolling Stones are just a few of the innovative artists that made a profound impact on rock and roll.  Paying tribute to some of the biggest rock and roll talent through ballet, Tony Williams Ballet Company presents rock ballad, Life: In Color, which explores memorable music over the past 60 years on Thursday, May 25 and Thursday, May 26.  Performances will be held at the Oberon Theatre, conveniently located in Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  Click here for more information and tickets.

Tony Williams, acclaimed choreographer and creator of the Tony Williams Ballet Company, talks about his love for dance, nearly meeting David Bowie, and how Life: In Color was born.

Life in Color Tony Williams

Tony Williams Photo courtesy of the Tony Williams Dance Center

Sleeplesscritic:  You are behind the annual Urban Nutcracker, now in its 17th year.  What do you think it is about the Urban Nutcracker that has appealed to audiences for so long?

Tony Williams:  It’s a show about Boston for an audience that wants to see themselves represented onstage.  Our mission is diversity through dance, and there aren’t many shows where an 8 year-old African-American boy can see himself reflected onstage amongst a cast that truly reflects Boston’s multi-cultural community.  While it’s a take on the modern tale of the Nutcracker, it has heart, soul, and a more modern driving force.  We add something new each year.  Whether it’s our LGBT celebration show, a sensory-friendly show for those with autism, or even a selfie stick for our onstage party photo, there is always something fun and unique.  This year we have exciting plans and I can’t wait to share the growth of our Urban Nutcracker show, but we have to keep some elements of surprise.

SC:  What inspired you to become a dancer?  Was there a particular moment where you realized that dance is what you were meant for?

TW:  I was a real jock playing baseball and doing gymnastics.  I never thought about dancing until I was 16 and was always fascinated with classical music. One day I saw a ballet performance at the gym where I worked out and was totally mesmerized by the purple color in the costumes.  Around the same time at the gym, some of the gymnasts said how Russian gymnasts took ballet to improve their skill. I went with one of the gymnasts to the Boston Ballet School and watched him in class. I soon took a class and was hooked, but I stopped after one class because someone said ballet is not for boys. Then, by good fortune, I bumped into one of the dancers that had performed at the gym. I mentioned I saw him dance and tried to become a dancer, but stopped. He encouraged me to continue and here I am more than 50 years later.

SC:  Please tell me about the Tony Williams Dance Center and the Tony Williams Ballet and why you decided to start a dance school.

TW:  I started the Tony Williams Dance Center in 2000. I had been freelancing as a ballet teacher and was traveling all around New England. In order to cut down on travel, I decided to settle down in Boston neighborhood and my hometown, Jamaica Plain.  Things got off to a good start and now the Tony Williams Dance Center is in its 17th year.  My first professional ballet company actually dates back to 1985 when I co-founded Ballet Theatre of Boston with Jose Mateo. From there, I founded the American Concert Ballet (ACB) in 1991. ACB morphed into BalletRox in 1996.  I finally founded my professional dance company, the Tony Williams Ballet, in 2014.

SC:  I was struck by the innovative concept of Tony Williams Ballet’s Life: In Color.  The show infuses 60s rock and jazz into contemporary dance.  Some influences include David Bowie, Prince, and the Rolling Stones.  You’ve said that you felt with the recent deaths of a few of these music legends, now is the time to pay tribute to them.   How did this performance come about from there?

TW:  I was buying a coffee at the City Feed ‘hippie store’ near my studio when I heard Lady Jane by the Rolling Stones.  I hadn’t heard it in quite some time and it brought me back to 60s. I loved that song and was inspired to choreograph to it.

One time, while on a tour with Canada’s Royal Winnipeg Ballet, we were staying at a hotel in Norfolk, VA.  After we performed one evening, some of my fellow dancers and I had a drink in the hotel lounge. Afterwards, I went up to my room to go to sleep.  The next morning, one of the dancers excitedly told me David Bowie entered the hotel lounge with his band after I went to bed.  He was very friendly and drank with my fellow dancers. Yikes, I really missed out on meeting Bowie!

SC:  What do you think makes this upcoming performance particularly unique?

TW:  These performances will be our first in a 3 – D setting at the Oberon Theatre. It is a night club setting with patrons sitting at tables around an open dance floor with a stage. The dancers perform on the dance floor, stage, bar, the catwalk, and in and amongst the seated patrons!

SC:  What makes you particularly excited about Life:  in Color?  You’ve said this performance is particularly meaningful, an emotional journey.

TW:  The 60s was such an incredible decade. I lived through the Vietnam War as well as the assassinations of JFK, MLK, and Robert Kennedy. I lived in New York City and was swept up in that ‘Flower Power & Love’ decade that arose as a counter balance to so much tragedy. Creating Life:  in Color allows me to reflect nostalgically on those times by using certain rock songs that I love from the 60s and 70s.  Witty and entertaining, the show is anchored around the fabulous poetry of Ken Nordine’s 1966 poetry album called Colors.  The playful poems are accompanied with beautiful jazz music. The poetry spans the myriad personality traits of human beings.

SC:  Life:  in Color features Venezuelan dancer Gianni Di Marco, Stoneham native Janelle Gilchrist, veteran dancer Meghan Gaucher, and Hawaiian native Rick Vigo.  Please tell me about how these choreographers got involved.

TW:  I have been working with these talented artists for a number of years and had planned to choreograph Life:  in Color myself, but realized that I did not have sufficient time to create the 30 plus mini- dances in the performance.  So I allotted approximately six dances to each choreographer.  Our costume designer, Dustin Rennells, assisted me with fleshing out a scenario based on my ideas and has created wild and colorful costumes.

SC:  What do you think is the best reason people should attend Life: in Color?

TW:  It will be lots of fun!  You’ll appreciate the fabulous dancers and the wide variety of types and styles of dance, from classical ballet en pointe to circus art, hip hop, and campy jazz.  We aim to entertain with an original artistic approach that will appeal to everyone, not just balletomanes.

Tony Williams Ballet Company presents rock ballad Life:  In Color Thursday, May 25 and Friday, May 26 at the Oberon Theatre, 2 Arrow Street, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  Click here for tickets and further information.

One of Tony Williams’s future projects is a new production of the Jungle Book in partnership with the Aparna Sindhoor Navarasa Dance Theater. Follow Tony Williams Dance Center on Facebook for updates and more.