Sunday's 10th annual Festival of Choirs had the feel of the best kind of camp revival with the most joyful of people raising the most splendid of voices for the most familiar of gospel anthems, minus the mosquitoes, heat and hard chairs.
Oh, and it had soloists on that legendary Lyric Theatre stage who could belt out tunes that snakes with no ears could hear underground and appreciate.
It was all free and fabulous and, though upfront about its purpose as an affirmative-action job recruiting tool, the festival succeeded on lots of levels that hardly touched on its original intent.
What was that intention?
It was conceived 10 years ago when the nearly all-white Lexington Singers "could see a need to enhance our minority membership," says Singers' spokesman Ron Walton. "By inviting the African-American churches to join us in a festival of song, we knew it would be an event we could all enjoy and do. It was also a chance to promote the idea of having some of their singers audition with us."
Whit Whitaker, who late in the afternoon's program stirringly sang solo lead on City Called Heaven, says he doesn't mind the notion of being recruited that way "as long as it's done respectfully." And he thinks it is. Still, he came to the Singers a year ago through his own theatrical musical background.
The entire program spoke of racial — and every other kind of — harmony. There was participatory singing as the theater was seated to capacity, and beyond (some singers were displaced to rooms outside the auditorium so seating could be found for patrons). There were astonishing collaborations with no rehearsal. There were no glitches.
Which was an improvement from last year, when the bevy of singers raised their voices from under a tent while standing in a parking lot across the street from the Lyric because the event had been set long before construction delays made the actual staging of it there impossible.
"I thought the acoustics outside were better," said Bette Hanks of Lexington. "I can't help but like it when there's nothing between you and the Lord but sky."
This year, though, the experience of taking it to the legendary Lexington stage had Singers' veteran Elaine Wilson telling the audience she had her first kiss in the back row of the theater.
Every church choir member was dressed in Sunday-best black, with no sets to distract from the music at hand. No bows were taken. No one held music. Choreography probably was not discussed beforehand but was lovely to behold.
Still, it was soloists LaDonna Polk of Imani Baptist Church, whose performance on the swelling All Is Well was reminiscent of Mahalia Jackson that nearly brought out the hankies. First African Baptist singer Landen Wilson's solo turn on My Heart Is to Worship brought down the house.
If the idea was, as Singers director Jefferson Johnson put it, that "music builds community," a member of the audience decided they had succeeded.
Minister Janet Coleman of St. John's Baptist Church in Lexington explained, "There are not going to be white people and black people in heaven. There are going to be sinners who were saved. If we can't get along here, none of us are going."