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Baptist choir shines at art fest

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MADELEINE FESTIVAL, Cathedral of the Madeleine, Sunday

This year's Madeleine Festival of the Arts and Humanities got underway Sunday with a concert of traditional gospel music presented by Salt Lake's Calvary Baptist Church Choir.

Concertgoers filled the Cathedral of the Madeleine to near capacity to hear the 50-member choir sing a fairly short 11-song set, accompanied by its director, Brian Hesleph at the piano, and also to hear from Calvary's minister, the Rev. France A. Davis.

For many in attendance, this was a new experience, and Rev. Davis encouraged everybody to join in the clapping during the songs, reminding them that clapping, stomping of feet and moving was all acceptable and all part of the experience.

The concert was titled "Still I Rise." Taken from a well-known gospel song, the title had a double-meaning. The song refers to the struggles blacks have had to endure to survive as a culture, but at Sunday's concert it was also symbolic of the struggles endured by the citizens of New Orleans as they're trying to rebuild their city after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. The concert was dedicated to the people of New Orleans and was a fund-raiser for the New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity.

Originally, three gospel singers from New Orleans were scheduled to perform with the choir, but due to unspecified reasons they weren't able to come to Salt Lake City.

But the Calvary choir didn't need soloists from outside the group to present a concert that was thrilling, moving, spiritually uplifting and inspiring. As Rev. Davis noted at one point, "We're not in the business of performing. We're in the business of worshipping."

And that is exactly what the choir did. It brought its special brand of worship, rooted in the black Baptist tradition, to the Roman Catholic Cathedral of the Madeleine. And no matter what the religious beliefs of the listeners, everybody was swept up in the moment and didn't need too much encouragement to let the spirit move them.

There were several wonderful soloists from the choir, who unfortunately weren't acknowledged by name during the concert. They lent their special vocal talents to a number of pieces.

One singer who was mentioned, Althea Douglas, soloed on the key song of the evening, "Still I Rise." She gave a heartfelt and emotional rendering of the song, which in many ways was the highlight of the evening.

The final three songs on the program, though — "How Excellent," "Total Praise" and "Oh Happy Day," were also deeply moving and brought the concert to a wonderfully touching and heart-warming conclusion.

E-mail: ereichel@desnews.com