They?re playing your hymn

The World Festival of Sacred Music, held every third year in Los Angeles, was reportedly “initiated by His Holiness the Dalai Lama in 1999 to mark the millennium with a message of peace, cultural understanding, and spirituality.”

Asheville’s own Sacred Music Festival may not have sprung from such auspicious beginnings — the vocal-and-instrumental concert began as part of the now-defunct Urban Trail Arts Festival — but as far as offering cultural and spiritual diversity, this local event is right on time.

“Multiple faiths all bring a distinct color to the rainbow,” cantor Debbie Winston of Congregation Beth Ha-Tephila told Xpress about the upcoming recital. “It’s about bringing together people whose paths may not cross much.”

Shocking the Irish

“This is a way to communicate faith and the experience of faith through song,” imparts Steve Cooper, director of music at Groce United Methodist. Two years ago, the church’s adult choir performed at the inaugural Sacred Music fest — in an unlikely partnership. The Protestant singers joined voices with their Catholic counterparts from Saint Eugene’s Roman Catholic Church.

The combined groups ventured into choppier waters when they sang in divided Ireland this summer. “We were kind of a surprise to [the Irish people],” Cooper notes. “They were like, Catholic and Methodist singing together — wow!”

The choir resulted from a long-standing friendship between Cooper and St. Eugene’s music director Chuck Taft. “We call it many voices blended by Christ,” enthuses the Methodist musician.

“I think it’s wonderful, because diversity makes our country grow,” says Trevor Chavis, who directs the African-American Reynolds Miller Chorale. “That’s us — that’s America.”

Bridge over troubled water

Winston also talks of bridging cultural differences through music. The trained vocalist will perform a solo number, accompanied by organist Dr. Vance Reese. “What I usually try to do,” she explains, “is choose a piece of Jewish music that’s not entirely in Hebrew” — the better for audiences to familiarize themselves with the ancient language while still connecting with the song’s English lyrics.

“Outreach is important to Judaism,” the cantor says. “As a small minority [in Asheville], we want to be very open to the rest of the community as to what we’re about.”

Future of a festival

Though Asheville Area Arts Council representative Rachel Figura claims the umbrella organization didn’t mold its Sacred Music fest after any other one out there, it’s hard to imagine not taking a page from L.A.’s two-week, 1000-artist-strong celebration of the same intent. And though size-wise, Asheville obviously is dwarfed by the So-Cal metropolis, our small city already hosts not only Judeo-Christian choirs, but music groups representing Eastern religions, earth-based spirituality, women’s mysticism, Native American ceremony, African tradition and other unorthodox faiths.

The Reynolds Miller Chorale got its start not in church but in historically black Stephens-Lee High School. It was Chavis’ brother Kenzil Summey who suggested the idea of a chorus to beloved music teacher Ollie Reynolds. That was in 1969. After Reynolds passed away, Chavis assumed directorship, and the group is now best known for its annual Christmas performance with St. Matthias’ string quartet.

“I think [sacred] music crosses all boundaries.” And “that includes people who are unsure of their faith,” notes Winston.

In other quarters, though, singing is believing. For the Chorale, Chavis has selected a program with a purpose. “We’re going to do ‘Let There Be Peace,’ because that’s our plea.” Audience participation, she hints, is required.


The Sacred Music Festival runs 1:30-4:30 p.m. at the Basilica of St. Lawrence (97 Haywood St.) on Sunday, Sept. 25. Free. 258-0710.

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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