LA JOLLA — Marching in to the energetic pulse of a gospel song, the 120-voice choir took its appointed place, clapping and swaying to its infectious beat. Then a member of the choir stepped forward to the microphone to offer a prayer that the Spirit might have its way that night, and a second choir member came forward to read a portion of Psalm 150.
In a Baptist church or revival tent, such rituals are hardly extraordinary, but this was UC San Diego's Mandeville Auditorium, home of the La Jolla Civic-University Orchestra and the university's prestigious string quartet series as well as the showcase for the UCSD music department's perennial avant-garde compositions. The choir was the UCSD Gospel Choir presenting its quarterly concert under the Rev. Glenn Jones.
Unlike the usual sedate Mandeville audiences, the audience this November night shouted out "Amens" and frequently broke into rhythmic clapping when an anthem started heating up. In church services where gospel music is sung, it's not unusual for the congregation to cheer and applaud a singer in the midst of a solo, just as an opera buff will shower a diva with "Bravos!" at the climax of a favorite aria.
The soloist in a gospel choir--always miked, unlike traditional choral soloists--is given the liberty of following the spirit of the moment, improvising an obbligato or repeating a refrain until the choir's ability to sustain these repetitions is exhausted. One of Jones' soprano soloists, caught up in a moment of ecstatic vocalizing, was showing no signs of coming to a final cadence, so he stopped conducting and patiently stood at one side of the podium waiting for his diva to wind down and end the song.
The instant emotional appeal of gospel music is its musical calling card.
"No other music is as visceral and close to the emotions," said Carolyn Terpstra, vocal instructor and director of San Diego City College's select vocal ensemble.
"It brings out a great emotional response in the performer. Especially for the soloist, it's a great chance to improvise. You don't need any special training to respond to gospel music, unlike, say, a Palestrina motet."
Shortly after the college's Gospel Choir was formed, Terpstra, a classically trained soprano, decided to sing with the ensemble for a semester to get a better understanding of the idiom.
The popularity of UCSD's 12-year-old musical ensemble is a sign of the growing acceptance of gospel music on college campuses in San Diego County. The UCSD choir is the most established, formed in 1974 by Cecil Lytle, a UCSD faculty member and current music department chairman. Offered as a two-unit course through the music department, it is also cross-listed in the university's Contemporary Black Arts program.
At San Diego City College, a Gospel Choir has been offered for four years, listed in the catalogue under both music and Black Studies. Across town at San Diego State University, a fledgling Gospel Choir is in its third year, offered in the Afro-American studies department.
Although college music departments are traditionally conservative and slow to change, the high profile of the religious ethos in gospel music presents a special problem on a public campus.
"You cannot deny the religiosity of the music," Terpstra said. "Black students in a chorus or in a vocal class have little hesitation in testifying in class before singing gospel music. And many of the black students in my vocal classes will sing only gospel music; for these it's not just a musical experience."
UCSD Gospel Choir conductor Jones, who is also a full-time minister at Mt. Sinai Baptist Church in San Diego, is particularly sensitive to this matter.
"I am not there to persuade or argue matters of religious faith," he said. "The subject of gospel music centers on Jesus Christ. Many students in the choir are Christians and readily identify with the message, others just enjoy singing the style of music, while others enjoy the fellowship of the group.
"I generally preface my religious statements (to the choir) with the explanation that they directly relate to the religious content of the piece of music we are singing. What I say is not meant to sway them in any way; rather, it is to get them into the character of the music.
"Our philosophy is to educate, to give the added dimension of musical experience from this particular ethnic perspective."
Jones' blending of religious conviction and diplomatic respect for the diversity of his UCSD choir members has meant that he has avoided criticism. "In the four years that I have been directing the gospel choir," he said, "I have never received either directly or indirectly the observation that this activity was too religious for the university campus."
Ironically, the Gospel Choir at UCSD is more popular with non-black students than with its own ethnic constituency.