At Your Service: Something missing at ‘Gospel Mass’

Gospel

Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

The First United Methodist Church was the setting for a performance of Robert Ray’s “Gospel Mass.”

First United Methodist Church, 2100 Fourth Ave. N.
Service: 3 p.m., Sunday, April 6, 2014
Length of service: 48 minutes. Length of sermon: None

I did something a little out of the ordinary for this church visit.

It was my intention from the start to avoid special days like Easter or Christmas, in order to witness “normal” services. That would seem to have ruled out attending and reviewing a special presentation of Robert Ray’s “Gospel Mass” at First United Methodist Church.

But I couldn’t resist. I have been rather picky in regard to music so far, as those following the series must know, and on earlier church visits I have been disappointed because the music was too raw and unprofessional, too pop-oriented, too treacly or too repetitive.

AtYourServiceI thought this special presentation of Robert Ray’s musical, which has been performed by choirs and churches worldwide, would finally provide what I had been craving. And the musicians and singers were some of the best in Billings. Somehow, though, I left the church feeling vaguely disappointed.

So, what went wrong? Or to put it more aptly, what the hell is wrong with me?

Let me explain. Twenty-seven years ago, I happened to be living in Minneapolis when “The Gospel at Colonus” came to the Guthrie Theater. Playwright Lee Breuer, as I recall reading at the time, came up with the musical after casting about for some modern means of helping theater-goers experience catharsis.

Greek tragedies like “Oedipus at Colonus,” on which Breuer’s play was based, were expressly designed to induce catharsis, a purging or purification of the emotions after being aroused to a state of intense pity or fear.

Breuer finally hit on what he considered the closest modern equivalent to the experience of watching an ancient tragedy: attending, and taking part in, a black Pentecostal church service charged with gospel music.

What is this series about?

To read the essay that introduced this series click here.

I went to the play twice, and I don’t know whether it was catharsis or simply ecstasy that I experienced, but on my deathbed I won’t forget how I felt on those two occasions. It helped that Morgan Freeman had the lead role, and that the Blind Boys of Alabama, a magnificent gospel quintet, were also on stage, all singing around a white grand piano.

Even so, the heart and soul of the production was a black choir from a local church, dressed in African robes and lined up on a steep set of bleachers at the back of the stage. Their soaring, soulful delivery brought tears to my eyes again and again, and tears, I believe, are the first signposts on the road to catharsis.

Maybe I shouldn’t even invoke that production. I’ve been to the Vatican, too, so does that mean I should turn up my nose at every other church in Christendom? I hope not. But I also hope it mitigates my lack of appreciation for the “Gospel Mass.”

The music was well performed, intellectually pleasing, admirable and beautiful. But there wasn’t, for me, a hint of catharsis, none of that lifting up of the spirit to an almost unbearable height. The combined choir from First United Methodist and the First Congregational United Church of Christ was good, but it must be said that all the choristers were white, with a preponderance of white hair.

Oh, how I craved that African-robed, bleacher-rocking, foot-stomping, tambourine-banging choir of “Colonus.” There was a moment at First United, during “Gloria,” the third of the mass’s six parts, when everyone in the choir and then everyone in the congregation started clapping along to the music, but it was short-lived and somewhat less than enthusiastic.

For weeks on these outings I had been seeing so much nearly theatrical involvement by members of the various congregations that I had begun to feel jaded toward such outbursts. But here, when we needed them most, there was nobody gyrating at the foot of the altar, nobody raising his arms in rapture, nobody shouting “Hallelujah!” or “Amen!”

At this point—when it’s probably too late to convince anyone that I’m anything but a tone-deaf philistine—I need to point out how fine the three soloists were. Amy Logan, soprano, is always good and she swung and soared on several of these numbers. Kristy Pruitt Montgomery, alto, also has a fine set of pipes and might have come closest to hitting the kinds of notes I was waiting for.

John Roberts, a tenor soloist who also played trombone with the band, distinguished himself again, as he has in so many venues and musical styles since his arrival in Billings last year. The band was all one could have asked for: pianist Kathy Honaker, bassist Mark Bryan and drummer Luke Kestner.

Working the hardest from start to finish was choir director Trevor Krieger, whose varied talents never cease to amaze me.

As for the choir itself, have I been too cruel, too clueless? My disappointment had nothing to do with the quality of the choir’s many voices. But where a classically trained voice reaches for a note of high purity, the gospel voice stretches for emotion.

I wanted more emotion, less restraint, more tears. I suppose I wanted catharsis. And as we all know from the preaching of Mick Jagger, you can’t always get what you want.

Previously: Chapter 1: St. Patrick Co-Cathedral.

Chapter 2: Mount Olive Lutheran Church.

Chapter 3: Full Gospel Revival Tabernacle.

Chapter 4: First Church of Christ, Scientist.

Chapter 5; First Baptist Church.

Chapter 6: Billings Freedom Church.

Chapter 7: Faith Chapel.

Chapter 8: Eagle Ministries Inc.

Next week: Pilgrim Congregational Church.

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