By Jody Feinberg
The Patriot Ledger, November 28, 2018
Whatever your religious beliefs, the holiday season is about finding light in a time of darkness, hope during periods of despair, peace amidst violence. And that seems more possible when singers and musicians voice these visions.
During three Celebrity Series concerts in December, these universal desires will be expressed by a South African gospel choir, a multi-cultural quintet collaborating with a Greater Boston youth chorus, and a musician bringing together Boston police and people affected by violence. What’s more, two concerts are free – part of the Celebrity Series’ Arts for All initiative – and take place in a theater at a Dorchester community center.
“There’s some real magic to the holidays that has nothing to do with commercialism,” said Guy Mendilow, who performs one of the free concerts. “It’s a time to transform what feels like a dark time into one of possibility and to appreciate that we’re hardwired for community and generosity.”
In “Heart of the Holidays: Tales of Light,” the multi-national Guy Mendilow Ensemble presents an array of stories with the Boston City Singers, professional actor and narrator Regie Gibson, and singer and pianist Courtney Swain on Dec. 15.
“It’s a collection of stories about people who have found hope under difficult circumstances,” said Mendilow, who wrote the piece that includes gospel, pop, South American and Middle Eastern music. “When you combine stories with music it moves people in a visceral way. It’s no longer abstract and it’s like adding color to black and white.”
The experience of a child in apartheid South Africa is one of Mendilow’s stories, but an especially powerful musical expression of hope in South Africa is the Soweto Gospel Choir, which has been part of the Celebrity Series multiple times. In “Songs of the Free” on Dec. 7, the choir celebrates freedom and peace in honor of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Nelson Mandela, who led the struggle to end apartheid, became the first black president of South Africa and won a Nobel Peace Prize. The Soweto Gospel Choir, who performed for Mandela and won two Grammy Awards, will sing traditional and contemporary gospel and freedom songs in multi-layered harmonies and infectious rhythms, accompanied by a four piece band and percussion section.
“The artistry is so magical,” said Robin Baker, associate director of community engagement at the Celebrity Series. “They sing from the heart and express a wonderful singing tradition.”
Hope is also felt in “Code Listen 3.0: Music for Healing and Dialogue” on Dec. 8. In this free theatrical work, violinist and composer Shaw Pong Liu performs with other professional musicians and Boston Police musicians a narrated piece created by her with mothers and teens who have lost a loved one to homicide. It features Liu, trumpeter Jason Palmer, violist Ashleigh Gordon, the ensemble A Far Cry and members of a Boston Police band and local residents.
Both free programs take place in a state-of-the-art theater within the Salvation Army Kroc Community Center, which opened in 2011, and are part of the Neighborhood Arts program of the Celebrity Series. Since its formation six years ago, Neighborhood Arts has expanded this year to offer 130 free or low-cost arts concerts, workshops and other art experiences in partnership with community organizations.
While the broader mission of the Celebrity Series may not be widely known, Baker said she believes the new website will increase awareness of its commitment to bring live performances to people, whatever their income or neighborhood, part of its Arts for All Initiative. For the first time, web site visitors will see in one spot the range of programs.
“You can now easily see the whole season whether it’s free or ticketed,” Baker said. “We want people to know that we’re bringing excellent artists to not just the main Boston stages, but into the neighborhoods.”
IF YOU GO
“Songs of the Free,” Soweto Gospel Choir, 8 p.m. Dec. 7, Berklee Performance Center, 136 Massachusetts Ave., Boston. Tickets start at $45.
“Code Listen 3.0: Music for Healing and Dialogue,” a theater piece with narration and music by string musician and composer Shaw Pong Liu, trumpeter Jason Palmer and violist Ashleigh Gordon with contributions from Boston Police musicians and Boston mothers and teens, 3 p.m. Dec. 8, Salvation Army Kroc Corps Community Center, 650 Dudley St., Dorchester. Free.
“Heart of the Holidays:Tales of Light” Guy Mendilow Ensemble, Boston City Singers, narrator Regie Gibson, and singer and pianist Courtney Swain, 3 p.m., Saturday Dec. 15, Salvation Army Kroc Corps Community Center, 650 Dudley St., Dorchester. Free.
Information and tickets for all concerts at www.celebrityseries.org or 617-482-2595.
In addition to the Celebrity Series free performances, the Mayor’s Holiday Special collaborates with ArtsBoston to offer 130 events in Greater Boston up to 50 percent off. For listings and tickets, go to www.artsboston.org.