Bring On That Gospel Joy

Jeff Kaliss on December 6, 2010
Terrance Kelly

Terrance Kelly has directed the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir since its founding. His ensemble’s spirited and open-minded approach to performance has positioned them on recordings with Linda Ronstadt and MC Hammer, as well as annual appearances with the Oakland East Bay Symphony’s holiday program, “Let Us Break Bread Together,” which this year will also include the Oakland Symphony Chorus, the Oakland Youth Chorus, the Mt. Eden High School Choir, the Pacific Boychoir, and (big breath) the Kugelplex klezmer band. Kelly, who was raised in Oakland by his jazz pianist father, the late Ed Kelly, talks about how he and the OIGC tune Gospel to ecumenical, multigenre, modern tastes.

How many faiths are there in your Interfaith Choir?

There’s about nine different Christian representations, some Buddhist, Jewish, Unitarian, Baha’i, and I think there’s something else. We are truly interfaith.

But I know you’re not strictly Gospel, though when you’re working in other genres, it’s been described as “Gospelized.” What does that mean?

You take a Christmas hymn or carol and do stuff to it. You change the rhythms and the chord structures around the melody so that it’s more representative of other forms of music. On the Symphony night [Dec. 12], we’re doing “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.” It’s basically the regular melody, but it’s wrapped around a reggae beat, but with Gospel voicings. Traditional Gospel is sung in three parts, closely running thirds ... and it gets more vibrant towards the end of the song.

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Let Us Break Bread Together: A Holiday Celebration

Venue: Paramount Theatre
City: Oakland
Date: December 12, 2010 4:00 PM
Price Range: $12-45


Did you get classical training?

At Holy Names College [now Holy Names University, Oakland]. Vocal performance was my major, but to go through the program you have to take composition, conducting, and writing.

There have been singers who’ve bridged Gospel and classical, including Marian Anderson and Jessye Norman [who did it this year at the San Francisco Symphony opening]. What do you think of their approach?

Well, most of them are really operatic, and what Marian Anderson did was Negro spiritual [not Gospel]. “Ain’t That Good News,” “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” — because of the lyrics, people call those Gospel, but they’re not in the style of Gospel music.

How is Gospel different?

A less operatic approach, in sound and technique. Marian Anderson was definitely more classical. The phrasing is different. The vibrato isn’t different; it’s really the placement which defines it. Classical placement is in the nose and the mask [the triangular sounding area topped by the bridge of the nose], and Gospel singing is straight from the heart; there’s not usually much classical training associated with it. Although in my case, a lot of newspaper articles have referred to my [vocal] solos as operatic; it’s the placement of my voice.

And that works fine in Gospel?

For me! [Giggles]

Tell us more about what we’ll discover about your approach as part of OEBS’ “Let Us Break Bread Together” celebration this weekend.

We do “Deck the Halls,” with “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” as an underlying theme. We do “Drummer Boy” to the rhythm and beat of Ravel’s Bolero; we did that last year. We’ve been part of “Break Bread” since the first one. It’s really one of our most fun performances during the year. We love [OEBS Conductor] Michael [Morgan]; he’s something to work with. Here’s this classical genius guy who could also easily be a standup comedian. He kind of jokes you into perfection.

Is there a challenge to the Choir’s working with an orchestra?

I guess the challenge is staying focused in the middle of all what’s going on. But it’s so nice to do every year that we don’t even see it as a challenge, as much as a great piece of fun.

And Morgan makes that happen?

It’s awesome! A person with any less joie de vivre than Michael has, might be a horror. There’s over 400 people on stage before he’s done with us. We have a blast, and it’s largely because of the temperament of the “leader of the call,” and that’s Michael. He demands that you do well, but he does it graciously and humorously.

How does it fit with your personal idea of what Christmas is?

I think it’s the way Christmas is supposed to be: people coming together to do what they do with each other. Coming together to celebrate one another. It’s such a mutual admiration society on stage.

Is it important to elicit a certain spirit of Christ?

Oh, it’s just important to bring joy out of everybody. The audience is pretty broad-based. You’d ask me, and I’d say, “Christ,” but there are plenty of people that would just say, “The spirit of God.” It’s however you call God’s name.

So it lets the Choir showcase its interfaith approach?

Yes. The title piece [“Let Us Break Bread Together”], all the groups sing. And I’m honored to be able to sing the solo on that; I’m a baritone. We all sing three pieces tutti. In the past, we’ve collaborated with Kugelplex, who will be there this year.

What are they like to work with?

Awesome. They have a spirit of joy that comes through, and it’s infectious. They’re a klezmer band — Jewish fusion music. It’s cool to dance to. I love Middle Eastern melodies; they play on the pentatonic scale, which suits me quite well.

Gospel as we know it goes back about as far as klezmer, to the late 19th century.

It started out of the church as hymns, but every subsequent generation would bend notes a bit more, and slide off notes, stylizing it until it turned into what would be today’s Gospel music.

And you’ve been doing Gospel with your Choir since 1986?

Yes, but I actually directed my first choir when I was 12.

Did Ed Kelly, your dad, have an involvement with the Choir?

He was our pianist for the first seven or eight years.

And the Choir has recordings out.

Three, and we’re working on our fourth. It’s gonna be called Clean Heart. It’s Gospel, and it’ll be out in March. Our existing ones are A Mighty Long Way, that’s Gospel; Rejoice, that’s our holiday CD with Christmas songs and carols; and Great Day, which is Negro spirituals, a cappella.

Do you personally ever get to sing classical?

Not as much as I’d like. But sometimes I do Negro spirituals or an anthem at church. And I sang previously with the San Francisco Opera Chorus. I loved it! I’m looking forward to maybe doing another couple of series with them. The last one was [Philip Glass’s opera] Appomattox. I love opera! Leontyne Price is my favorite singer evuh!