At Perfecting Church, Perfect Flow Between Orchestra, Community

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Na’Zir McFadden, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s new assistant conductor, leads the DSO and Perfected Praise Choir at an October 26 concert at Detroit’s Perfecting Church. (Photos by Sarah Smarch)

DETROIT — It is a truth universally acknowledged that a person in possession of a ticket to an orchestra concert must want to sit and listen quietly for an hour or more, observing well-established concert protocols. The energy and sound flow largely in one direction: from the stage to the audience. There is briefly a reverse flow at the end of each piece in the form of applause and perhaps shouts of “bravo” — but only at the moments traditionally observed.  

At the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s free neighborhood concert Oct. 26 at Perfecting Church, these protocols largely went out the window, as gospel entertainer and church founder and pastor Marvin L. Winans joined the DSO and the church’s Perfected Praise Choir to host a concert that shortened the psychological distance between musicians and audience. It also provided an opportunity to hear the DSO’s new assistant conductor, Na’Zir McFadden, in action. McFadden, a clarinetist as well as a conductor, is just 22 years old and graduated last May with a music degree from Temple University. He was leading one of his first DSO concerts since beginning the job in August. (His position also includes serving as music director of the Detroit Symphony Civic Youth Orchestra.)

Aspiring percussionists check out instruments before the Detroit Symphony’s concert at Detroit’s Perfecting Church.

At the church — located about eight miles from the DSO’s downtown home on Woodward Avenue — an audience of church members, neighborhood residents, and DSO fans sat side by side. Before the concert, I chatted with a listener who has been a church member for 19 years and has also attended a couple of DSO concerts in Orchestra Hall. There were a lot of families.

Staff from the church, the DSO, and Detroit Harmony (a music-education program among the DSO and other arts nonprofits, schools, and community organizations) welcomed concertgoers to the building an hour before the concert for family activities. In the lobby was a cacophony of bucket drumming, and students tried out brass instruments that had been laid out on a table, with some parents signing up their children to participate in the program. In the church’s small chapel were music activities for young children: egg-shakers, singing, flag-waving, marching to snippets from the “Toreador Song,” and the like.

A young man tests his skills on a trombone before the Detroit Symphony’s concert at Perfecting Church.

The one-hour concert featured a mix of classical and gospel music, including symphonic pieces by Jessie Montgomery, William Grant Still, Gioacchino Rossini, and Duke Ellington. The presentation was part of the orchestra’s Detroit Neighborhood Initiative that has included visits to Chandler Park, Southwest Detroit, Dexter-Linwood, Northwest Goldberg, and Northwest Detroit. At Perfecting Church, top DSO officials were spotted in the audience — music director Jader Bignamini and president and CEO Erik Rönmark — as well as conductor Jeri Lynne Johnson (founder of the Philadelphia-based Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra).

The DSO strings were seated on the floor level, with woodwinds, brass, and percussion onstage, the church’s band members stage right, and the choir upstage on risers. Winans spoke briefly at the start, welcoming the audience and quoting from Psalm 150, which begins “Praise him with the sound of the trumpet” and ends with “Let every thing that hath breath praise the Lord.” Karisa Antonio, the DSO’s director of social innovation, also welcomed the audience, noting that gospel and classical “is Detroit.” She said with this concert the orchestra wanted to provide “moments of inspiration, joy, and peace.”

Erik Rönmark, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s president and CEO, helps an aspiring musician try out a saxophone before the DSO’s October 26 concert at Detroit’s Perfecting Church. Rönmark is also a saxophonist.

There was a loud cheer for McFadden when he reached the podium. He took a bow and launched the DSO into Starburst, Montgomery’s three-minute piece featuring bits of syncopation and bright, slashing streaks of string sound. McFadden then picked up a microphone and said, “Hello, Perfecting Church! How are we feeling this evening?” The first response evidently being insufficient, he asked again, this time with a more robust response.

He spoke about Montgomery’s piece “mixing rhythms and dynamics to create this popping of sound at the end,” and then introduced Rossini’s William Tell Overture simply: “You will recognize the theme when you hear it.” The English horn (Monica Fosnaugh) and flute (Hannah Hammel Maser) soloists traded off the overture’s triple-meter solos beautifully, and the famous galloping theme charged along. It received a warm welcome.

Introducing Still’s Summerland, McFadden reiterated a theme of the evening: peace and unity, explaining that the work’s inspiration is the afterlife, something greater than ourselves. The piece is beautifully dreamy and pastoral, and when McFadden asked, “Did you feel it?” after the applause ended, the audience responded with a unison “Yes!” He is clearly at ease speaking informally to audiences.

Members of the Detroit Symphony before their concert at Perfecting Church.

Three gospel numbers were a highlight of the evening. The choir’s rendition of Hezekiah Walker’s “Lift Him Up,” featuring the choir led by guest choir conductor Michael Fletcher, was full-throated, heartfelt. Fletcher was mesmerizing to watch, dancing as much as leading the choir during the many repeats of “Come on praise him” and “Lift him up/Higher higher.” Much of the audience remained standing, clapping on the rapid “higher” off-beats, for the second half the piece. It went on a long time. I could not keep my eyes off one choir member who was really into it: She had a particularly radiant expression on her face as she sang.

When McFadden returned to the podium to introduce the next orchestra selection (two movements from Duke Ellington’s The River), he said, “I’m thinking we should go home,” noting he was still catching his breath from dancing backstage to “Lift Him Up.” The first Ellington movement, “The Village of the Virgins (Twin Cities),” is serene, calm, and hymnlike, with trumpets and horns opening the piece, some crunchy jazz chords, a triad sequence in the strings, and some nice harp accents. The second movement, “The Giggling Rapids,” moves along more energetically, in the more piano/jazz-band style we typically associate with Ellington.

The Detroit Symphony, Perfected Praise Choir, and soloists Lisa Scott-Bailey and Marvin L. Winans perform ‘Even Me, Lord’ at Perfecting Church.

Before conducting the final orchestra piece, McFadden noted that the evening’s program “represents the community I’m from.” His choice of an arrangement of the Supremes’ “I Hear a Symphony” (“In my family, we love the Supremes,” he said) revealed a glimpse into the background of this young conductor who is so new to the professional orchestra scene. The symphonic arrangement of “I Hear a Symphony” (by Richard Hayman) might come off a bit kitschy in a different environment, but it somehow worked in this church setting, and got whoops and hollers.

“We’ve gotten to the point in the concert where there’s only one piece left,” said McFadden, and the audience responded, “Awwwwww.” (It was that kind of evening.) But what a piece that final number was: “Influence My Heart,” an original Marvin Winans gospel theme mashed up with “Amazing Grace.” All the stops were out as McFadden led the choir, band, orchestra, and soloists Norma Saunders and Marvin Winans. To the side of the auditorium, an ASL interpreter’s impassioned movements and expression were a riveting performance in themselves. By the end, everyone in the room was standing. There was sound from the stage and sound from the audience. There was big energy in the house, and it flowed in both directions.