SpiritSong launched into 2011 with a first-class concert at Te Papa’s Soundings Theatre on Saturday 26 March. Thirty-one singers lifted their voices in harmonies that delighted an appreciative audience of all ages.
The concert at New Zealand’s national museum unveiled the latest evolution of The Salvation Army’s national vocal group, founded in 1995. Fourteen singers made their debut, with a larger proportion of younger Salvationists in the group than in recent years. Many members performed strong solo numbers during the afternoon programme. Gospel, soul and jazz songs had the audience tapping their toes as well as reflecting on the message of God’s love.
The 90-minute programme opened in triumphant fashion with ‘Psalm 24’ ahead of a worshipful, spine-tingling rendition of ‘Alleluia’. Musical Director Matthew Pethybridge introduced the group to concertgoers. ‘We are SpiritSong, the national choir of The Salvation Army in New Zealand—we come together because we want to share this experience of the love of God that we know to be true in our own lives. Sit back, make yourself comfortable and enjoy these songs that we offer to you.’
The group then launched into the funky ‘Stranger (from Galilee)’, with tight accompaniment from some talented session musicians, ahead of the Calypso-feel of ‘Glorious’. Then it was straight into ‘This is How it Feels to be Free’, with Glen Buckner as soloist in a song celebrating what it means to be forgiven by Jesus Christ.
A shift of mood came with ‘Psalm 23’, featuring Leigh Oliver in a song that switched between syncopation and quiet restraint and that was punctuated by spontaneous audience applause. Leigh’s deep, soulful voice swelled as she proclaimed, ‘And I’m gonna live in the house of the Lord forever!’
Mandy Hall introduced two songs offering hope for troubled times: ‘We Are Not Alone (God is with us)’ and ‘You Are All I Need’. ‘I need all sorts of things,’ Mandy admitted to the audience. ‘I need shoes, I need an iPad 2 … but what I really need in life is Jesus!’ Her beautiful soprano voice in the solo of ‘You Are All I Need’ soared to Heaven.
The concert’s first half wrapped up with ‘Thou, O Lord’, before a 20-minute intermission, during which SpiritSong members took time to chat with audience members.
The second half of the concert opened brightly with ‘Hallelujah Anyhow’, a snappy number that punched out positivity. ‘No matter what comes my way … hallelujah, anyhow!’ sang SpiritSong, happy faces showing harmony between the song’s lyrics and the singers’ understanding of God in their lives.
The next song brought the sounds of a Brazilian carnival, as Joel Millington, Leigh Oliver and Matthew Pethybridge shared solos in ‘Calvary’. Nicholas Vemoa and Charlene Duxfield then shared the stage in ‘Testimony’, before Ebony Sushames presented ‘Greater’. Ebony joined SpiritSong as the recipient of an Amplify vocal development scholarship. Her strong voice and clear diction got the message of ‘Greater’ out for all to understand: ‘I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me!’
‘The Love of God’ was followed by a mellow song of eternal hope, ‘My Life is in Your Hands’, offering the friendship of Jesus as comfort for the brokenhearted.
‘The First Time I Came to Grace’, which featured soloists Maree Downey and Peter Hennessey, was an opportunity for personal reflection. Robin Austin presented the afternoon’s final testimony in the closing benediction, ‘Total Praise’, ‘You are the source of my strength, you are the strength of my life.’
Coming as this concert did, towards the end of an intensive four days of rehearsals, there were a couple of ‘ragged around the edges’ moments, but overall, this was a polished performance of gospel music from talented musicians, with confident versatility across a wide range of musical styles.
The joy of the Lord certainly underlies SpiritSong’s ministry—that joy shone from every face, came through every voice and easily infected SpiritSong’s listeners too.