A very special Christmas: Area mass choir to perform with Grammy-winning tenor (and it all began with a spot of channel surfing)

December 7, 2013 8:29:58 PM

Jan Swoope - [email protected]


A few years ago, Doug Browning was casually flipping through channels and came across David Phelps.  


"I hear this voice, and I just back up and watch. I was riveted in my living room!" said the Columbus First United Methodist Church music director.  


Although no one could have foreseen it then, Browning's discovery planted the seed that will bring the Grammy and Dove Award-winning artist to the Golden Triangle Dec. 21 at Rent Auditorium. The "Christmas for Columbus" concert presented by the United Methodist Men of First United Methodist Church will benefit local nonprofit organizations. An area-wide mass choir will perform at least four selections with the Nashville-based tenor known for his work with the Gaither Vocal Band as well as his solo career. 


When the time came to begin planning the United Methodist Men's annual benefit event, Browning sent a YouTube video of Phelps to fellow church member Andy Tentoni, who serves as president of the multi-county UMM Starkville District. Tentoni's emailed response was simply, "Wow!" 


"We're thrilled to death to have one of the premier artists of our times right now," said Tentoni. "David Phelps will peel your eyes back -- we're so excited to have someone of his stature, and most of all, to be able to help the Good Samaritan Medical Clinic, Last House on the Block and the Loaves and Fishes community soup kitchen ministry." 




Mass choir 


An exciting aspect of the concert is the opportunity to assemble a mass choir to perform with Phelps and his orchestra. Planned numbers together include unique arrangements of "Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee," "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing," "O Holy Night" and "Panis Angelicus." 


"A community choir is like a giant quilt of people, coming together to make music," said Browning, who reached out to other church music directors and choral groups. "We're trying to get as many people to come sing with David Phelps as possible." 


Already participants represent churches including First United Methodist, First Baptist, Fairview Baptist, First Presbyterian, Pleasant Hill Baptist and Murrah's Chapel in Columbus, as well as First United Methodist in Starkville and West Point. Vocalists from the Columbus Choral Society and Starkville-MSU Symphony Chorus are taking part, too. 


Two rehearsals have already been held, but there is still time to participate. Singers are asked to attend a minimum of two rehearsals and required dress rehearsals. Remaining rehearsal dates are Dec. 12, Dec. 19, and two dress rehearsals Dec. 21. The musical arrangements can be downloaded at the music ministry link at columbusfumc.org. For more information, visit the website or email [email protected] 






Browning was enthusiastic after the first rehearsal Nov. 21. 


"I could hardly sleep when I got home," he said. "They all got in the room together and we struck a chord -- I was taken back. When they came, they brought power. It was electrifying." 


Danny Baxter, minister of music at Columbus' Fairview Baptist Church, anticipates a good representation from that church's 100-plus member choir.  


"When Doug called the first time, I was very excited, not only to have David Phelps coming but also to bring our churches together to benefit local charities. It's a great opportunity," said Baxter, who joined the Fairview staff in February. 


But it's not only large churches; small congregations and choral societies are involved, too. 


Alisa Toy directs the Columbus Choral Society. 


"I don't think we've ever seen anything quite like this," said Toy. "I looked around the room at rehearsal Thursday night, and there were so many people I didn't recognize, but we were all singing together, singing praise to God." 


The main point, she added, are the charities. "That's the whole point. We can bustle about and do our own thing, but really, when it comes down to it, Christmas is about giving." 


Rhonda Richardson lives in the New Hope community and leads the choir at Murrah's Chapel, a small Methodist church in east Lowndes County. Phelps is her favorite artist, one who inspires her. 


"When I heard he was coming to Columbus, I was ecstatic! And to be able to sing back-up with him, well, it's just crazy," she said. "And what an honor to sing with all these choir members from other churches -- there is so much talent there. This is going to be an amazing concert." 




How to go 


Tickets to the 7 p.m. concert are $20 general admission. Artist Circle tickets are $30. Get them at the church offices of First United Methodist, First Baptist, Fairview Baptist, First Presbyterian and Pleasant Hill Baptist in Columbus. Or call FUMC at 662-328-5252. Doors open at 6 p.m. 


Browning hopes "Christmas for Columbus" brings a special magic to the Golden Triangle area this season. The objective, he and Tentoni emphasized, is not to bring prestige or glory to the churches, but to bring glory to God through the cooperation of the community and to be a blessing to the charities that will benefit.  


"When you come together you can lead people to Christ," said Richardson. "That's what's just beautiful to see about this, everybody coming together. That's what we need -- unity among our churches and communities. And what a wonderful way to do it!"

Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.