handel in gospel

Image: Elyeser Szturm

By Walnice Nogueira Galvão*

Gospel is the religious chant that predominates in black Protestant churches in the United States. Like jazz, created by slaves, it comes from the depths of the oppressed soul that in singing finds liberation.

Osesp's last concert of the 2018 season was spectacular: nothing less than the Messiah by Handel transcribed into gospel.

Osesp's conductor, Marin Alsop, commissioned Bob Christianson and Gary Anderson to perform, who made the orchestral, instrumental and vocal arrangements. They kept the melodies, which remain recognizable, but profoundly altered the harmonization and rhythms, adding other dimensions and blossoming into an irresistible swing.

The choral mass was impressive: the Osesp Choir added to the Academic Choir, surpassing a hundred voices. The soloists, who came from abroad – tenor, soprano and alto – were specialists in gospel and jazz, as vocal juggling is not the same as in lyrical singing. Anyone who has heard gospel knows what this inspired religious chant is, which predominates in black Protestant churches in the United States. Like jazz, created by slaves, it comes from the depths of the oppressed soul that in singing finds liberation.

The queen of gospel, Mahalia Jackson, reigned her entire life over worshipers and fans alike, having unleashed her powerful voice on occasions that resonated: at the inauguration of John Kennedy; in the march on Washington in favor of the civil rights of its people, when Martin Luther King delivered the famous speech “I have a dream”; and at the funeral of this leader.

Gospel, although with different results, is related to the blues, which is a song of banzo, of sadness, of nostalgia. Gospel, on the other hand, is full of the Spirit, full of energy, of people who find joy in the expression of their pain. In these churches, the growing vibration of singing, which takes over all the believers, soon leads to dancing, even in a sacred space, reminding us of David, king and poet, who sang and danced the psalms of his own creation before the altar of the Most High. .

Were it not for singing and dancing a privileged channel of expression, inducing trance and ecstasy, common to the rituals of all peoples, including Brazil – whether in the sacred cults of the orixás, or in profane forms such as the batucada, the school of samba and carnival.

O Messiah in gospel, it infected those present, translating into a form of participation other than the static and contemplative one determined by etiquette in classical music concerts. On the occasion, participation required, from the incitement of the singers, that they clapped rhythmically and burst into applause (unheard of thing!) at the end of each sequence. Such behavior is in good form in opera, with each aria especially well performed, or in ballet to salute the perfection of a step-de-deux. But not at a symphony concert, where it's considered a faux pas to applaud before the end.

From jazz, there was no lack of scat singing, which Ella Fitzgerald or Louis Armstrong could improvise as far as the eye can see (or hear). Some instrumental solos were also grafted: piano, saxophone, trumpet. But the most sensational was the drums, which lasted for several minutes, the other instruments in silence, remembering the historic solos of drummer Gene Krupa and many others. Or, closer to us, the one who just left us, the great Naná Vasconcelos, eight times elected the greatest percussionist in the world by the downbeat and holder of eight Grammys.

The only problem was that in Sala São Paulo there is no visibility from the audience. Although the drums were located in the second row, therefore very close, the beautiful solo was only heard, no one could see anything of the performer's expertise. From the audience, I could see the members of the choral mass, standing on the stage, looking at the enchanted drummer.

Aside from the enthusiastic participation of the public, there was an embryo of dance in the ginga, in the body language and in the gestures of the solo singers. All this created the expectation that at any moment the Spirit would visit the conclave through its faithful, as in black Protestant churches where the gospel is part of the liturgy. Or else, as in candomblé, the saint would lower…

And it was close, because the convergence of all these elements with Handel's beautiful music was breathtaking.

*Walnice Nogueira Galvão is Professor Emeritus at FFLCH-USP.

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