Praises ring out in Woolsey Hall for ISM's closing anniversary event

May 8, 2024

The psalmist exhorts us to “make a joyful noise unto the Lord,” and on May 5 more than 1,000 people in Woolsey Hall raised their voices in jubilant noise. An ecumenical hymn festival on the theme “All Creation Sings” celebrated hymnody, the diversity of creation, and the 50th anniversary of the Yale Institute of Sacred Music. View the full recording here.

The festival choir had as its nucleus the Yale Camerata, a 70-voice chorus of Yale affiliates and New Haven community members. The on-stage Camerata was augmented by a community choir of 110 additional voices divided between the two side balconies. The choirs were supported by a brass ensemble, multiple keyboards in alternation and in combination, and numerous instrumental soloists.

Dr. Felicia Barber, conductor of the Yale Camerata, provided musical direction. The Rev. Dr. James A. Forbes Jr. and the Rev. Dr. Barbara Brown Taylor contributed scripture readings and reflections. Even as the eloquence of their spoken words kept the audience focused and grounded, congregational hymns provided the event’s emotional high points. Attendees sang, swayed, and clapped along with rousing songs such as “We’ve Come This Far by Faith” and “Sweet, Sweet Spirit.” Lively vocal solos by Brittany Stewart and Fredy Bonilla invigorated audience members, who were coaxed into fervent participation by John Paul McGee on Hammond organ, Nathaniel Gumbs on electric keyboard, and Marcus Johnson on drum kit.

Contemplative participatory moments were equally moving, such as the simple refrain of “Down to the River to Pray,” gently introduced by unaccompanied singers Virginia Grabovsky, Saleena Holder, and Frank Parker. Tranquil a cappella music was similarly effective when Mahima Kumara and Rachel Segman sang an introductory hymn verse from the rear of the hall.







(Pictured above, the Rev. Dr. Barbara Brown Taylor and the Rev. Dr. James Forbes.)

A featured contributor was Woolsey’s massive Newberry organ, which for several months had been under repair and out of commission. Festive hymns demand festive organs, and the Newberry rose to the challenge. Organists Nathaniel Gumbs and Bruce Neswick alternated at the organ console for vigorous prelude, hymns, and postlude.

The hymn festival concluded a monthlong commemoration of the Institute of Sacred Music’s 50th anniversary. Previous events included a performance of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, a celebration of gospel musician Richard Smallwood, an Evensong service, and a symposium and performance centered on J. S. Bach’s Mass in B Minor. The ISM is committed to interdisciplinary engagement with the arts in all religious traditions. On May 5 everyone was invited to participate in the communal practice of singing hymns, and many answered the call.

—Laurie Ongley

(Photos, Harold Shapiro)