Ray Chew’s star-studded gospel celebration, ‘An evening of inspiration,’ makes glorious return to Carnegie Hall
REVIEW: Hezekiah Walker, Tye Tribbett, Erica Campbell, and Pastor Shirley Caesar were among the guests who joined Chew and a large orchestra and choir for a night of gospel music at one of New York's most hallowed venues.
REVIEW: Hezekiah Walker, Tye Tribbett, Erica Campbell and Pastor Shirley Caesar were among the guests who joined Chew and a large orchestra and choir for a night of gospel music at one of New York’s most hallowed venues.
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Ray Chew, the decorated musical director of television institutions like “American Idol” and “Dancing With the Stars,” first brought “A Night of Inspiration” to New York’s Carnegie Hall in 2010. He and his wife Vivian Chew co-produce the December night of gospel music, while Chew directs a large orchestra and choir with star-studded guests.
In 2020, the Chews were planning the fourth installment of the event, but the COVID-19 pandemic altered those plans. On Saturday (Dec. 10), it returned for the first time since 2019.
Anthony Hamilton, Paster Shirley Caesar, Bishop Hezekiah Walker, Tye Tribbett, Erica Campbell of Mary Mary and Donald Lawrence were among the guests who graced the Carnegie Hall stage during “A Night of Inspiration.”
With former “American Idol” contestant Jacob Lusk kicking things off with a fiery rendition of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground,” the concert began on an explosive note.
Chew, overseeing a 64-piece symphony orchestra and the New Jersey Delegation Gospel Choir — a 150-voice multicultural collective — elevated the music to a high level. The list of special guests helped turn the Stern Auditorium/Perelman Stage into a full-fledged church revival.
“I need your spirit in here tonight,” Chew told the audience. Well, the crowd gave him the spirit in spades for sure. Especially, when Walker performed his gospel hit, “Every Praise.” The ground shook underneath the patrons as they reacted to the song’s opening notes before becoming a massive extension of an already massive choir on stage.
Jekalyn Carr joined Pastor Caesar for a tribute to the late Aretha Franklin. The cover art for the Queen of Soul’s 1972 album, “Amazing Grace,” hovered above the stage as Carr and Caesar performed a stirring rendition of “Mary Don’t You Weep.”
While gospel standards and contemporary gospel bops were performed for most of the event, the title — “A Night of Inspiration” — delivered on its implication that secular music and music of other faiths would also be performed.
Hamilton sauntered onto the stage to perform Bill Withers’ “Grandma’s Hands.” It is a song that spoke of Withers’ grandmother and how she used her faith to uplift her family and community. Hamilton sang with gorgeous sensitivity as the orchestra swelled and modulated with each passing verse.
Another highlight was Cantor Azi Schwartz’s appearance to represent the Jewish faith. Schwartz sang a delicate version of Simon and Garfunkel’s classic “Bridge Over Troubled Waters.” It was fateful, as Simon, the song’s author, once admitted that gospel music partially inspired its composition.
After the intermission, the night’s second half started as ebulliently as the first with a rendition of “Joyful Joyful” featuring college students and youth dancers. Chew’s arrangement was nearly identical to the version from the film “Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit,” that a young Lauryn Hill chiefly performed.
Campbell, who performed a new song in the first half, brought her hit “A Little More Jesus” to the stage, accompanied by violinist Olen Cesari. The foot-stomping gospel romp caused a fervor in the crowd as Campbell sang with power and grit, while Cesari’s violin only increased the song’s sense of traditionalism.
After dynamic performances from Walker (“I Need You To Survive”) and Tribbett (“Victory”), the night ended with a tribute to gospel legend Richard Smallwood. Campbell, Carr, MAJOR., Regina Belle and others delivered a beautiful medley of Smallwood’s most beloved compositions before igniting the crowd in one, big climax with “Total Praise.”
The Chews should be proud of themselves for delivering another versatile evening of faith and music to a crowd that soaked the experience with gladness and enthusiasm. It was a perfect evening to set the tone for the holiday season.
Matthew Allen is an entertainment writer of music and culture for theGrio. He is an award-winning music journalist, TV producer and director based in Brooklyn, NY. He’s interviewed the likes of Quincy Jones, Jill Scott, Smokey Robinson and more for publications such as Ebony, Jet, The Root, Village Voice, Wax Poetics, Revive Music, Okayplayer, and Soulhead. His video work can be seen on PBS/All Arts, Brooklyn Free Speech TV and BRIC TV.
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