Gospel Night at the Boston Pops keeps getting better and better artistically even as it appears to be losing ground as a diversity and outreach event.
In the past, gospel music has typically supplied only half the program, but on Sunday gospel reigned for most of the evening. While some of the wonderful soloists from years past have moved on, this year's group was a standout -- each and every one of them was vocally superior to any of the ``American Idol" finalists. Two earned standing ovations -- soprano Ida Kamrara in ``I'm Coming Home" and Ayeesha M. Lane in ``The Next Time." Over the years Kamrara has evolved from a shy youngster into a gospel diva whose voice repeatedly vaults into the starry region above high C; Lane is an exuberant belter.
There was also a lineup of impressive tenors, beginning with young Samuel E. Moscoso (``Deliverer"), and including the veteran Norris V. Welch , Gary Lyon , and another youngster, Kion Simmons , who brought heroic presence and pipes to ``Sing."
The program included a stirring setting of ``The Lord's Prayer" from conductor Charles Floyd's gospel oratorio ``Hosanna" and an unusual gospel arrangement of the opening recitative and aria from Handel's ``Messiah," sung by Katani A. Summer, Jerome Kyles, and Joseph C. Rucker Jr. Purists might shudder, but Handel will survive, and the composer might well have been delighted at many of the spontaneous virtuoso embellishments developed by the singers, including a rap sequence.
The Boston Pops Gospel Choir, nearly 100 singers assembled from more than 40 area churches, swayed and lifted their voices triumphantly . The rhythm section -- Wayne Pittman , bass; David Cowen , drums; Jerome Kyles and Obadaiah Baker, keyboard -- was superb, but the amplification of their work and the soloists sometimes overpowered the chorus.
Sunday night there were only two instrumental selections, both showcasing musicians from the Esplanade Orchestra, the ``Meditation" from Massenet's ``Thais" and ``Gabriel's Oboe" by Ennio Morricone from the film ``The Mission," played with gospel-inspired communicative fervor by concertmaster Joseph Scheer and oboist Laura Ahlbeck, respectively.
Floyd led a rousing, roof-lifting sequence of performances. He told the audience that the marriage of gospel music and the symphony orchestra was an odd one, ``but opposites attract." There's more to it than that. The glory of gospel music is that throughout its history it has been so powerfully assimilative, taking whatever it needed from other musical worlds, even the most commercial ones, and adapting it to spiritual purposes. Skillful arrangements keep the orchestra from interfering with gospel's spontaneous combustion, and the orchestra reinforces a dimension of majesty that is already there.
It is too bad that all this work went into only one performance. Gospel Night used to be featured on television, and the program was sometimes repeated free on the Esplanade for audiences that don't have access to Symphony Hall. Management has retreated from making the most of the outreach potential of this event , which attracted a full and diverse house that was united by the uplifting spirit of this music.