“We’ve already sold two-thousand tickets to the concert!” David Brown, founder and choirmaster of New York’s Metro Mass Choir announces at the start of rehearsal early last May.
The choir hoots.
The advance ticket sale for the choir’s Spring performance at New York’s famous stage, Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, is dazzling for a local gospel choir with no advertising budget. But this is no ordinary gospel choir. In the bubbling broth of color, culture and faith that is New York, no other choral group contains so many spices: all ages, all colors, gay and straight, rich and poor, Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, agnostic and atheist–making Metro Mass possibly the only interfaith and interracial gospel choir in the country. Loyal fans, wanting a taste of what Brown calls “spiritainment,” keep such close track of upcoming performances that tickets are often gone before they go on sale publicly.
“Okay, let’s begin, “ Brown shouts above the one-hundred-plus excited voices in the rehearsal room at Carnegie Hall. The decibel level lowers as the choir members reach for each other’s hands and Brown opens with his customary prayer: “We come from many directions to this room tonight; now give us one direction.” An “Amen” rings out as Jeffrey Klitz, the group’s pianist, plays the opening chords to the Rudolph Stanfield song, “Still Have Joy,” and work begins.
Within seconds into the song, David stops the music. “Y’all are phonin’ it in,” he says, holding an imaginary receiver to his cheek and mimicking the blank, business-as-usual facial expression he finds blasphemous. Then, animated again, “We have one week to go. You’re supposed to be singing about joy and you sound like you’re in agony. Hello? Do I have your attention?”
To keep attention high, Brown, who left his job at the Marble Collegiate Church in New York City to begin his own choir in September, 2001—one week before 9/11–often alters his own arrangements slightly from performance to performance. His insistence on taking gospel music to places where it’s never gone before defies purists who look askance at mixing spirituals with pop or singing about the human spirit, not just the Holy one. For the upcoming concert, for instance, African dancers and bucket drummers will back up the Moby song, Natural Blues, and a Mariachi band will appear for the finale, Let Go, Let God.
Metro Mass members not only sing together, they give back to the community together, last year building housing for the homeless, spending time with terminally-ill children, providing musical mobiles for infant beds in local hospitals—in essence, practicing what they preach. Through song and service, Metro Mass thrills its audiences but also its own members, who share their life stories and faiths, challenge one another to get over what makes them uncomfortable, expand their views about what’s “normal” and “good”, and inspire each other to live a more courageous life by giving and giving and giving more. Brown provides the unique holding environment for all this with his wit and eloquence on the subject of the human journey. His intimate revelations at every rehearsal, from his struggle with religion to his “tragically hysterical” coming-out as a gay man in the south, serve as both story and metaphor for the group, and many cite their own deep personal transformation as the result.
That’s just what Brown hoped for when he started the choir in 2001. “I was taught that there was only one right way to believe in God,” says Brown, reared in the tradition of the Southern Baptist Church, “but always knew there was something wrong about believing I was the only one who was right. Isn’t this the chief cause of the conflict in the world, as well as in our back yards?”
So in this choir, where talent from the New York subways and homeless shelters are guest performers along with artists like Cissy Houston, Martha Wash, and Beth Nielsen Chapman, there is clearly no “right” way of thinking, being, or singing. Brown constantly challenges his singers to be bold and courageous in their performances and lives, and encourages his audiences to do the same (“Who here wants to be remembered for playing a supporting role in his own life? I certainly don’t. I want a starring role in mine; I want us all to live the best and most fabulous and joyous life possible!”).
On the night of the Lincoln Center performance, from the moment they step onstage in their black pants and t-shirts, that joy bursts through as all 114 choir members passionately lift their voices in praise of whomever or whatever they believe to be responsible for the outrageously potent energy they create together.
It is a divine alchemy.
To learn more about NYMMC, visit www.Metromass choir.org.