BWW Reviews: Michael W. Smith Shines at Kennedy Center Concert Debut
Grammy Award winner and contemporary Christian music (CCM) mainstay Michael W. Smith at the Kennedy Center, backed by an orchestra and large choir? Really? That's pretty different. The conductor would be the versatile David Hamilton, who has not only arranged for Michael W. Smith, but has guest conducted for some of the nation's leading symphonies, and has worked with the likes of everyone from Renée Fleming and Shania Twain to the Tony Award-winning Heather Headley? That's even more interesting.
Yes, I admit that was my reaction upon seeing the January 26 concert listed on the venerable venue's online calendar.
As a disclaimer, I happen to be one of those people that frequents a myriad of edgy and mainstream theatre, cabaret, and concert venues in DC and has a bit of an eclectic taste in music and performance art in general. Additionally, I admire any artist that constantly stretches the boundaries of what his/her genre is known to be. I also happen to have been raised in the church, attended a Christian liberal arts college, and mostly get the whole Christian music thing (which I promise - if you're reading this and shudder at the thought of such a narrow genre, and have preconceived, set-in-stone notions of what the genre is - it is probably not as one-note and 'bubble gum' as you might think).
So given all that, why not experience what was likely to be a nearly one-of-a-kind event at the Kennedy Center? After all, it's only happened once before for Mr. Smith - and that was at the not-to-shabby Carnegie Hall.
That's what I did - and it definitely exceeded my expectations.
Smith is the man behind nearly two hundred songs over his more than three decades-long career so whittling the possibilities down to a subset that would make up his concert set list must have been some challenge - yet he and his team rose to it. An accomplished musician and lyricist, he is as comfortable with writing and performing 'film score-like' instrumental pieces and what many would dub 'praise and worship' songs as he is with edgier faith-inspired rock numbers. The Kennedy Center concert - featuring the solid and energetic True North Symphony Orchestra under the direction of David Hamilton, Smith's own rocking rhythm section, a beautiful and rich sounding 200+ voice choir featuring individual singers and church choir members from not only the United States, but other foreign countries - was able to showcase all of this diversity. It also featured the work of other musicians that are commonly associated with Michael and others who do what he does. No small feat indeed.
As Michael sat behind the piano, clearly reveling in the opportunity to check something off of his bucket list (play at the Kennedy Center) and jam with other musicians in a way that's pretty rare for CCM artists, he achieved three things that made me take notice.
First, he highlighted his definite, 'no kidding' piano playing chops on his self-composed "Whitaker's Wonder" (a Christmas song written for his grandchild) and the patriotic "Heroes," dedicated to those who are serving or have served in the US military, among others. His definite ear for varied melodies, resistance to any paint-by-numbers approach to compositions, and emotion-filled yet precise piano playing made these instrumental selections highlights of the evening. Working well with the orchestra, the swelling music filled the cavernous Concert Hall with ease. Smith can fundamentally stand alongside some of the great musicians in the country as far as his composition and keyboard skills regardless of genre.
Second, it was what he didn't do that impressed me. So often in CCM concerts (whether intentional or not), the performer can come off to some as bit insincere as he/she praises the Lord through music. This can be the result of seemingly over exaggerated emotions or a constant urge to turn 'preacher' and include mini-sermons in between songs. Those well-entrenched in churches may understand that approach and be ok with it, but I'd imagine it can be a bit uncomfortable for someone simply looking to hear some good music and maybe be inspired by it. Although Mr. Smith included a few words on occasion as to what a song meant to him and was apparently in awe of the opportunity to share his faith-inspired music with the appreciative crowd, he unassumingly took the audience on a ride without guiding it too much. Thanks to his nonchalant approach, I think he let each person get out of the experience what was best for them and enjoy the music at a fundamental level. Several sing-along moments at the end of the concert (including 'praise and worship' classics that Michael W. Smith co-wrote like "All is Well" and other well-known ones such as "Mighty to Save" and "Above All") seemed to come about organically rather than be designed to instigate a specific emotional, planned-to-the-nanosecond reaction from the crowd.
Third, he managed to achieve three other kinds of highlights - varied ones, to be sure.
True, his voice may not be the most interesting or unique among longstanding and emerging American musicians. Yet, the means by which he combined technically proficient and emotionally resonant vocals, solid piano playing, and a high level of overall song performance free of ego and self-importance on the patriotic ballad "There She Stands" (written months after the 9/11 attacks) was noteworthy. The combination of all of these elements made this moment one of the most memorable.
He also grooved with the best of them on the more rock/pop-based "Gloria." It was a definite treat (and I must say, a rather unexpected one) to hear one of his more rock-based songs with a full orchestra and choir. Although I would have liked to have heard one or two more numbers of this sort, I appreciated the effort to include at least one.
Finally, as much as he is probably sick to death of singing the song for which he is probably best known, it was fun to hear him sing the catchy yet meaningful "Friends" live. On a personal note, I remember first hearing this song as a teenager in the 1990s although it debuted eight to ten years prior. Listening to it brought me back to a time when I learned that there was more to Christian music than the hymns my extremely traditional church featured in all services. It was a delight to hear that familiar tune in such a place as the Kennedy Center. The incorporation of the choir only made the experience even better.
All in all, this was a solid offering from True North Presents and I only hope the DC area is provided more opportunities to experience similar events. Not every Christian music concert is best experienced in huge arenas like the Patriot Center or churches of all sizes in random MD/VA suburbs. It's nice to see something a little different, particularly in Washington, DC proper.
This concert was presented on January 26, 2014. For further information on "True North" and its entertainment offerings, visit its website. For Michael W. Smith's upcoming tour dates and news about his upcoming May 2014 release of a new album, visit his official website.
Photo: Courtesy of Kennedy Center website.