I’ve been to three concerts recently, which is a little unusual for me. The first week of December I was invited to join a group of Scandinavians who traditionally gather to listen to “Beautiful Music” on that date. This year’s concert was held in the Great Room of the new Nordia House. A beautiful, spare, modern building built in the Scandinavian tradition of light wood and white walls, embellished with handcrafted carving and metal work. The music was beautiful, as promised—a celebration of the 150th birthday of Sibelius and 98 years of independent Finland. The concert was hosted by the Finnish Lutheran church.
It was very cold in the Great Hall, the heat wasn’t working and it was at freezing temperatures outside. A room full of stoic looking Fins, Danes, Swedes, Norwegians, and maybe some Icelanders wrapped to their ears in wool coats and scarves seemed to remove us from Oregon straight to the frozen climates of our forebears. Many there spoke with homeland accents that brought my DNA to attention, feeling so familiar yet so far away.
The most poignant part of the evening came when as a closing we sang together, first in Finnish (for those who could) and then in English to the tune of Sibelius’ Finlandia: This is my song, O God of all the nations, A song of peace for lands afar and mine….” (This is My Song, Lloyd Stone, 1934).
In the second week I was invited to attend a, “Christmas Jubilee” which was a joyful celebration featuring three groups of Southern Gospel singing men from Tennessee. Twelve men in suits, something we don’t see in this part of the country. It’s a style of music I don’t listen to often, but there was joy and comfort in the words and melodies. Their beautifully blending voices allowed the audience of nearly 1000 to lean back and soak it in—many singing along. The people took such great delight in the performance, and deep joy in the singing and telling of the Christmas story. And then near the end came the time to sing together, with instruments and without. All of those voices singing, in 4-part harmony, the worthiness of the Christ child and the majesty of his name. It was wonderful.
And just a day later it was time for the Gospel Christmas concert downtown. This has been a tradition for me, my family, and assorted friends from the beginning. What started out as a one-performance experiment with Conductor Charles Floyd and the Oregon Symphony has turned into a three-night, sold out run, year after year. I could recount the information that anyone could find online, but far more important to me is the joy and hope that it brings to each audience member and to our city.
When this Gospel Christmas idea first came forward, concerts were set up in several cities around the country (the same conductor with the various local orchestras and choirs). Portland was just one city on the list. It wasn’t long before the other cities dropped off for lack of community interest and involvement, and now our city is the only one! 17-years and counting.
Most of the music is in the African-American style, usually referred to as Black Gospel. This year choir members represented 35 different churches in the area, with most of the soloists coming from those choirs. Highly skilled musicians and vocalists. Joyful! Exuberant! People dancing! And the glorious singing. As Charles Floyd said, “If you’re going to sing about the birth of Jesus, then you need to sing about a lot of other things as well.” Songs of encouragement. Songs to honor the recently fallen. Songs of praise. Songs of the Story. One of the most delightful things is watching the orchestra members enjoy the whole evening as well. There are smiles all around, and some sing along as they play. When the conductor turns to them and says, “You want to go sing?” some jump at the chance leave their chairs to go stand in the choir–the concert master is the first one on his feet!
Portland is considered one of the most “unchurched” cities in America, and by comparison to many American cities of size, our African-American population is relatively small. But Gospel Christmas has found its home here. As Mr. Floyd said, “Portland, you’re the real deal. This doesn’t happen anywhere else.” It’s an event that brings the races and various communities together, where the African-American interpretation of the Gospel and the Christmas story is valued and enjoyed by an audience of nearly 3,000 at every concert. At that performance we see people of many ethnicities and every style of dress imaginable. There are people who come for the cultural experience, and those of us who thrill at the sound of the Gospel story. It is a beautiful time for the people of our city to mix, building hope and joy into our community.
As my kids, when they were young adults used to say, “If Gospel Christmas was the only thing that happened to celebrate Christmas it would be enough.”