A joyful night of sacred music from American Pops Orchestra

Filmed at the National United Methodist Church for broadcast on PBS later this year, the concert was open to members of all faiths to enjoy.

What unites the “Godmother of Soul” Patti LaBelle, Wicked’s original Glinda Kristin Chenoweth, Grammy-winning gospel singer Sandi Patty, and the Metropolitan Opera’s Will Liverman? Apparently, a love of Christian music. On May 16, the National United Methodist Church (NUMC) hosted these four singers, other artists, and the American Pops Orchestra conducted by its founder and Music Director Luke Frazier for a night of sacred music entitled How Great Thou Art: A Sacred Celebration. The performance was filmed for broadcast on PBS later this year and was open to members of all faiths to enjoy.

‘How Great Thou Art: A Sacred Celebration’ at National United Methodist Church. Photo by Daniel Schwartz.

The night’s program felt chosen for a troubling time, with many songs built around the idea of relief, comfort, and joy offered through Christianity to those enduring periods of challenge. While a few songs were explicit about life’s meaning coming through, and even only through, Jesus Christ — notably “Because He Lives” performed by Chenoweth — most of the pieces were lyrically and/or musically enjoyable by anyone of any faith background. For me, as a Christian, the night’s program was a welcome introduction to kinds of Christian music that are not typically performed at my church, and that I would not have been familiar with otherwise. How Great Thou Art genuinely helped me realize new ways that music can help me worship.

Patti LaBelle emotionally delivered soul numbers including “Lord’s Side,” “Walk Around Heaven,” and “When You’ve Been Blessed,” all songs emphasizing comforting messages of relief after long periods of challenge. Kristen Chenoweth sang expressive, even bombastic numbers including “Joyful, Joyful,” “Prayer of St. Francis,” and the titular duet “How Great Thou Art” with Sandi Patty and an accompanying choir that brought her Broadway-earned skills to the fore. Patty, who has been in the gospel music industry since 1972, brought her bright soprano to comforting and hopeful pieces including “In the In-Between,” “Let There Be Peace on Earth,” and “Just a Closer Walk With Thee.” The Met Opera’s Will Liverman brought his rich baritone to spirituals including “Ain’t Got Time to Die” and “Lord God of Abraham.” His operatic style brought the immense range of existing gospel music to the night’s repertoire.

The thesis of the night’s performance seemed to be the existential relief and joy open to all through God and Jesus in the Christian tradition. This thesis seems to match ideally with the mission of the NUMC’s interfaith and social justice work, as well as that of the American Pops Orchestra, which under Luke Frazier seeks to “build community through the preservation, promotion, and reimagination of American popular music.” (For every ticket sold, $5 was donated to the Washington Interfaith Network, which helps support local faith communities.) I felt enriched and refreshed through the night’s music, and I have a feeling that other Christians in attendance likely did as well. I’m glad that the American Pops Orchestra collaborated with a DC-based church toward the mission of conducting outreach through religious music — maybe this will help bring more attention to both the American Pops Orchestra’s work as well as the interfaith, charitable efforts of the NUMC.

The NUMC’s main sanctuary is built in the traditional Gothic cathedral style, with pews on an even elevation through the long spine of the cross shape. Press members were seated at the front of the back half of the sanctuary (directly behind the camera crew), so it was difficult to see the stage immediately behind the camera, and far more difficult to see the performers anywhere behind that first row. I was sitting near the sound mixers as well, and I frequently found myself peering to see their monitors in an effort to see the performers instead of attempting to look around or under the camera to catch a glimpse of the stage.

Clockwise from top left: Patti LaBelle; Will Liverman; Luke Frazier, Sandi Patty, and Kristin Chenoweth in ‘How Great Thou Art: A Sacred Celebration.’ Photos by Daniel Schwartz.

In addition to some visual issues for a portion of audience members, audio issues were also an issue during the night’s programming: in the first song of the night, Patti LaBelle’s microphone was not working properly, causing her to not be audible over the sound of the accompanying musicians (who played beautifully!). Luckily, some of her pieces were rerecorded after the night’s programming officially concluded. I’m glad that those who tune into the recorded broadcast on PBS* will have the opportunity to hear the number in full.

While I struggled to see during this show, I deeply loved and appreciated what I could hear. I have been inspired to dive deeper into the musical tradition of my faith, and to be inspired to do so by some of the most celebrated of recent American performers — including Glinda the Good Witch — was a joyful, joyful way indeed.

Running Time: Approximately two hours.

How Great Thou Art: A Sacred Celebration played May 16, 2023, presented by the American Pops Orchestra performing at the National United Methodist Church,
3401 Nebraska Avenue NW, Washington, DC.

The program for How Great Thou Art: A Sacred Celebration is online here.

*How Great Thou Art: A Sacred Celebration will premiere on PBS on November 24, 2023.


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