As glowing wreaths and festive lights adorned the beautiful Davies Symphony Hall, a spirit of celebration filled the space as the San Francisco Symphony, conducted by Daniel Bartholomew-Poyser, was joined by the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir, or OIGC, for its spirited “Holiday Soul” concert Dec. 8.
Standing behind the symphony, the OIGC glittered as it gave an animated performance. An early highlight was “Oh Holy Night,” which began as a straightforward, operatic performance from OIGC artistic director Terrance Kelly, before shifting into a soulful reinterpretation of the classic, in which Kelly’s impressive falsetto was the star. Paired with the instrumentation of the symphony, the number gave an indication for the sonic treat that would light up the night. Although it was early into the set list, much of the crowd awarded this performance with a well-deserved standing ovation.
Visually, sparkling splendor became a theme of the evening, as each soloist sported a wardrobe more glittery than the last. Vocalist Mickala Cheadle-Josey, who led performances of “Emanuelle” and “The Battle,” was a highlight, as she made acrobatic runs appear effortless through belting powerfully in the upper register.
While many might assume a trip to the symphony to be a formal, stiff outing, “Holiday Soul” was anything but a static experience. The highlight of the night was the interactive nature of the performance: At several points throughout the show, Kelly encouraged the audience to sing along, giving the crowd four-part harmonies to practice and sing as he invited folks to dance while seated, standing or even in aisles. The spirited crowd was wildly receptive to this invitation, as unified voices rose through the air and hands clasped together on beats two and four — an emphasis on the backbeat, which is a rhythmic fixture of gospel music.
After leading the crowd in a stereotypical choir version of “Silent Night,” Kelly explained that OIGC sings the classic in a different approach before inviting soloist Tessa Loehwing to lead the soulful rendition. Loehwing’s growl shocked the audience, and the crowd hung onto every phrase of her sultry intro with delight. Call-and-response was a virtue of the night, and audience members clapped and offered “hallelujahs” throughout performances.
For the second portion of the evening, renowned vocalist Yolanda Adams was originally scheduled to perform but was unable to due to an unexpected quarantine. Vocalist and actress Sheléa approached her somewhat last-minute substitution with grace and transparency, taking the time to introduce herself to the audience and building a cheerful rapport between each song.
Sheléa performed an original song from her Christmas EP Don’t Wanna Wait ‘til Christmas interspersed with other popular yuletide classics such as “Christmas Time is Here” and “The First Noel.” Although the power and dynamism of the full symphony could have been utilized more often, Sheléa exuded a regal stage presence and gave a stunning vocal performance, notably shining in an emotional tribute to Whitney Houston in “Who Would Imagine a King.”
Where Sheléa truly soared, however, was in the night’s return to the gospel genre. After Kelly returned to stage and led another four-part harmony involving the audience in a sprightly rendition of “Joy to the World,” Sheléa joined the gospel choir for a rapturous “Jesus, What a Wonderful Child.”
Although there were many changes to the set list between the printing of the program and the performance itself, the night felt anything but chaotic. “I know I’m not what you expected,” Sheléa told the audience as she played the keys toward the end of her set, “But we’ve had such a wonderful time together tonight.”
The symphony’s “Holiday Soul” concert concluded with a joyful reprise of the “Hallelujah” chorus from Messiah, leaving the audience with lifted spirits to last through the holiday season.