Common roots–classical piano training and early immersion in gospel music—nurture the talents that combine to lead Washington Performing Arts’ (WPA) gospel choirs. The maestros–Stanley J. Thurston and Michele Fowlin—will conduct the 100-plus combined voices of the adult and children’s groups in a concert that will celebrate gospel music’s power to heal and bring communities together.
“Renew,” set for Friday, June 2, at The Music Center at Strathmore in North Bethesda, also will mark the Men and Women and Children of the Gospel’s Silver Jubilee, the release of their debut CD, “Why Do We Sing?” and the finale of WPA’s 50th anniversary season.
Thurston, the choirs’ artistic director, said he and Fowlin, the children’s group’s musical director, expect their production will “showcase the versatility of the choirs and the unique ability of music to renew and refresh the mind and spirit.”
“It has been a while since the gospel choirs had their own concert. I think it was in 2006,” said Fowlin, attributing that to a “calendar full of collaborations. We wanted this concert to embody the organization and its mission and purpose, of what it has done through music. The whole concert is about renewal, addressing the imbalances of mind, earth, body and spirit.”
The program will feature world premieres of two WPA commissions, with the adults performing folk and blues musician Toshi Reagon’s “DC Water,” an environmental composition, and the children taking on Thurston’s “Dwelling Place,” which Fowlin described as “not too deep or heavy, but thought provoking.” “The WPA initiative” stipulated “blending different styles: gospel and more formal elements,” Thurston explained. Its three movements, he added, are “a solo beginning prayer with a modern jazz styling of harmonies; the testament, which is mostly gospel, and finally, the exaltation, which is more popular music.” While each may be performed independently, the entire work will be done this time.
Pieces by prominent gospel composers and arrangers and works from outside the repertoire are on the program as well. An instrumental ensemble of piano, brass, strings and percussion, led by Anthony Walker, will perform–both together and solo–gospel standards and less traditional works, and as host, WHUR-FM’s Jacquie Gales Webb will provide threads that link the segments along with a narrative by playwright and lyricist Murray Horwitz.
Fowlin started piano lessons at age 4 in her native Queens, New York. “I thought that was what I would do (for a career),” she said, but her soprano voice eventually took precedence. She sang accompaniment for her father, who she said turned down a scholarship to study at New York University because the need to provide a stable income for his family overrode his love of music. Fowlin is grateful her “father never imposed that mentality on me. (Instead,) he told me to work hard and never be discouraged.”
At Howard University, where Fowlin earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in vocal performance and pedagogy with a minor in piano, she studied conducting, eventually becoming assistant to the conductor and then a lead soloist for the University Choirs. Post-Howard, she remained in the area and “continued my vocal career while expanding my skills as a conductor and music teacher in the public school system.”
“I am blessed, I am blessed, I am blessed,” Fowlin insisted, referring to her consistency in “pushing it in so many different areas of the arts: singing, conducting, teaching, playing piano.” She also serves as Eleanor Roosevelt High School’s director of choral programs and New Bethel Baptist Church’s minister of music. But for Fowlin, performing on stage is “above all else,” she said. “I am happiest singing and conducting. Teaching is more secondary, but it is an opportunity to impact my students’ lives, to nurture (in them) a love of music that encompasses all the arts.”
As for the future, Fowlin “would like to see this rare gem of a children’s group reach international status, become as popular as Beyoncé.” She believes “we are doing a special ‘thing’ here—for lack of a better word. Gospel has a lot of different categories; it is not just for church. We love and sing all genres of music—jazz, blues, spirituals, and we learn history through the context of gospel. It is artistically sound.” She noted that participants, ages 9 to 18, audition for a place in the group and must attend a weeklong intensive camp that includes ear training, sight reading, theory, choreography and team building. Outside educators and performers are invited to offer different perspectives.
“What we do on stage is really a reflection of life: learning to cooperate for a common goal: making the music sound good,” Fowlin observed. “Even if we dislike someone, we find a way to get along. The message of what we do has to outweigh personal concerns.
“I believe what I do through music is spread love.”
For herself, Fowlin wants “to perform even more. I love singing, I love conducting, I am happy and blessed to be on stage pursuing excellence, grace and longevity. I want my name to ring like Oprah Winfrey,” she said. Giving the former First Lady her due, she added, “I know I can’t be the only Michele, but I will the push the bar to greatness wherever it lands me.”
Like Fowlin, Thurston is a classically-trained pianist with experience in accompanying both vocalists and instruments. The Silver Spring resident grew up in Chicago in a non-musical family, although he and his siblings were offered the opportunity to take piano lessons. As the only one who took up his parents’ offer, Thurston proceeded from home lessons to studying in school and playing in church, with “quite a few mentors in both venues.” He said piano was his focus by age 6 or 7, and became his professional aspiration at 12 or 13.
A piano major at Morgan State University, Thurston’s music directors pointed him to conducting, and he switched his efforts during graduate studies at the American Academy of Conducting at Aspen. Summers, he said he “learned by doing.” Via influential teachers and organizations like the American Symphony Orchestra League and the Conductors Guild, Thurston gained admission to workshop and study programs in both Europe and the United States. He remembers his working summers as “a whirlwind. I was swept into the cycle.” By virtue of his connections from Morgan, job offers came from the metropolitan area.
Also a composer and arranger, Thurston’s work extends beyond the WPA Gospel Choirs. Among his current commitments, he is artist-in-residence at Washington National Cathedral, director of music ministries at Foundry United Methodist Church and artistic director for the Heritage Signature Chorale, which he founded. He, too, performed at the 2009 Presidential Inaugural Prayer Service, conducting a musical tribute he composed for the occasion.
Thurston believes he and Fowlin first crossed paths at Howard University, meeting later at WPA, where “we balance each other. She has a similar kind of training as a classical pianist,” but while Thurston gravitates to conducting opera, “she is a bit closer to the contemporary world of gospel,” he said.
Multilayered vocal and symphonic conducting is Thurston’s preferred concentration. “I’m doing more opera conducting these days, and that’s where I’m most comfortable,” he said.
About the “Renew” concert, Fowlin promised, “it’s fun, entertaining, interactive. We added media and dance,” noting, “I’m a choreographer at heart, but we engaged a real one to help make it work.” Thurston is similarly excited about the “expansive” production, “its staging, dance, instrumentation, the exciting program,” and Strathmore’s “great acoustics, and a nice warm atmosphere with lots of light wood.”
Washington Performing Arts’ Men, Women & Children of the Gospel Choirs will present “Renew” at 8 p.m. Friday, June 2, at The Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda. A “Linger Longer!” after-party in the lobby with the artists and a cash bar will follow the concert. For tickets, ranging from $35 to $75, call 202-785-9727 or visit WashingtonPerformingArts.org.