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.