Churches pull out all the stops for Easter music

Karen Dybis
Special to The Detroit News

At Triumph Church in Detroit, a weeklong Easter worship program filled with Grammy Award-winning performers will culminate in a 500-member children’s choir taking the stage for a spectacular Sunday extravaganza.

The Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Detroit, will honor the Resurrection with a mix of 1,500-year-old chants and performances from the Motor City Brass Quintet, whose members include musicians from Bob Seger’s Silver Bullet Band.

And across town, Perfecting Church is bringing in an orchestra to perform “Worthy Is the Lamb Slain,” an original composition by Pastor Marvin L. Winans, as the culmination of its massive Easter celebrations.

When it comes to religious commemoration, Easter is the Super Bowl, World Series and Olympics all wrapped up in one, according to Metro Detroit music ministers. These maestros seek to educate, entertain and inform parishioners. It is a chance to impress as well as express the most important event in Christianity — the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

As a result, the Metro Detroit faithful are treated to world-class musical performances befitting a Broadway show. These productions take months to organize and weeks of rehearsals to create. The effort is worth it because it is a tribute to their beliefs and their dedication to their craft, religious leaders and musical directors say.

“The music is very intentionally the score to the emotion of the week,” said the Rev. Stephen Butler Murray, president and professor of systematic theology and preaching for the Ecumenical Theological Seminary in Detroit.

“So much of the living energy of the Church is communicated through the sound of the organ, the blare of the trumpet,” Murray said. “Not only do we have bigger audiences than the rest of the year, but we need to go above and beyond our normal capabilities — even in music — to capture the grandness of this moment and what it says about our beliefs as Christians.”

People across the United States celebrate Easter in different ways, but many will attend a religious service this weekend, according to the National Retail Federation, a trade association in Washington, D.C. More than half will visit family and friends, 55.6 percent will cook a holiday meal, 15.6 percent will go to a restaurant and 51.3 percent will go to church.

Alongside the religious meaning, there are financial, strategic and other considerations at play. Metro Detroit churches go out of their way to advertise all-star events on their websites, YouTube and elsewhere, hoping to impress “Easter Christians” and add them to their year-round congregations.

Robin Ware, director of pastoral affairs and events at Triumph Church, says, “I have to make sure I take my vitamins” to get through this intense week of hosting guest performers, fitting blazers on the Youthful Praise Resurrection Mega Choir and ensuring Pastor Solomon Kinloch Jr. has everything he needs to get through more than 15 services this Easter weekend.

“It’s like boot camp this week,” said Perfecting’s minister of music David Buford, who at one point was directing five simultaneous rehearsals across the church.

This year is special in other ways as well: Buford’s daughter, who is part of the Kids of the Kingdom choir, will be performing for the first time.

“Music plays an important part in bringing families together,” Buford said. “People who might not normally come to church will come to see their kids perform. ... A lot of people, sad to say, won’t remember the message that’s taught that day. But they’ll remember the songs.”

The Easter liturgy re-energizes the already enthusiastic Joe Balistreri, director of music for the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, which will feature two organists, a brass quintet and 24 singers on Sunday. Balistreri said music is not only an ideal way to express yourself and your love for God, but Easter’s joyous celebration is also the ideal end to the dark, quiet and somber days of Lent.

“That’s the purpose of music: We’re putting our hearts as one on the altar and losing the baggage that divides us. We’re united. We’re glorified,” said Balistreri, who mixes everything from classical to gospel music into Blessed Sacrament’s performances this weekend. Plus, he has the benefit of having two full-size pipe organs to create a “thunder of music” for the congregation.

At St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church in St. Clair Shores, music director John Perna will put together a mix of parishioners, school parents and genuine rock ’n’ rollers as well as professional musicians to “go all out for Easter,” he said. His performers range from members of “outlaw country” band the Orbitsuns to an eighth-grader and a retired dentist.

Sunday at St. Joan, the bell, teen and children’s choirs will come together with the 30-person adult choir to double its size. St. Joan also will have musical accompaniment with four strings, four brass players, one flute, one oboe and one timpanist.

“It’s always fun to put all the choirs together and include the kids in the larger picture,” Perna said. “Getting the kids involved exposes them to good music and helps them develop skills they’ll have for the rest of their lives. We also want them to realize that worshiping can be a fun experience; you can enjoy being a part of the Church and going to Mass.”

Karen Dybis is a Metro Detroit freelance writer.