Birmingham AL – Attendees at A Gospel Symphony Celebration in Birmingham, Alabama last weekend at the BJCC Concert Hall experienced the rarest of treats when legendary Gospel recording artists the Clark Sisters and Smokie Norful teamed up with Conductor Dr. Henry Panion, III, the Alabama Symphony Orchestra, and a 125-voice Gospel choir. Panion, most known for his work as conductor and arranger for Superstar Stevie Wonder, has also arranged, orchestrated, and conducted for a venerable list of Gospel elite, including Kirk Franklin, Blind Boys of Alabama, Tramaine Hawkins, Kurt Carr, and the Winans.
After a stirring opening with Panion’s orchestral rendition of “Ride On King Jesus,” the Clark Sisters – individually Elbernita “Twinkie” Clark-Terrell, Jacky Clark-Chisolm, Karen Clark-Sheard, and Dorinda Clark-Cole – joined the stage in a perfect blend with the orchestra on “Livin,” immediately bringing the audience to its feet.
Powerful performances of Clark Sister classics followed, including “Praying Spirit,” which featured the orchestra’s string section in a neo-classical style imitating each sister’s vocal lines…truly something to behold. And if there was any doubt as to why this Grammy Award winning group is the highest selling female gospel group of all time, that doubt was quickly settled with the impeccable, vocal prowess presented by the Clark Sisters that night. This was matched only by the skillful performance of the Alabama Symphony Orchestra and the sure-handed baton of Dr. Panion.
Smokie Norful came to the stage midway during the first half of the concert, singing his festive “Celebrate” to an audience that was more than eager to celebrate with him. The powerful rhythmic feel established by the orchestra coupled with Smokie’s masterful vocals had the entire house on its feet. The first half of the concert concluded with Dorinda leading choir and orchestra in another tour-de-force arrangement by Dr. Panion, her smash hit “I’m Coming Out.”
The Clark Sisters opened the second half with several more crowd favorites, “Blessed & Highly Favored” and “Jesus Is A Love Song,” the latter giving Karen an opportunity to display her virtuosic vocal abilities. Any performance with orchestra by Smokie Norful would not be complete without his lusciously orchestrated “I Need You Now.” The mega-selling hit was presented so beautifully by the large string section of the Alabama Symphony Orchestra under the masterful interpretation of Maestro Panion. With closed eyes, one might have thought they were listening to the original recording instead.
After a soul-stirring performance, combining the talents of Smokie Norful, the Clark Sisters, choir, and orchestra on his “Justified,” Panion concluded the show with the most classic of Clark Sister songs, “You Brought The Sunshine” and “Expect Your Miracle,” providing yet one more treat to the audience, a master-class on Hammond B3 by Twinkie Clark.
As the creative force behind Gospel Goes Classical, the Billboard Gospel and Classical Crossover history-making recording, Dr. Panion’s merging of classical and Gospel music is a seemingly match made in Heaven. And if the overwhelming success of this concert is any indication of future success, one can only hope and expect to witness A Gospel Symphony Celebration for years to come with orchestras throughout the world.