Ensemble Objective: Enriching Cultural Health by Music

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From the Founder’s Memorial Amphitorium stage, Jason Max Ferdinand will assess audience response to selections during the Jan. 27 Jason Max Ferdinand Singers “Experience!” program as part of BJU’s Concert, Opera & Drama Series.

The conductor of the all-star ensemble appreciates applause, of course, but will also be pleased if he spots a teary eye or a head hung in prayer.

Be on guard, BJU Community, because “Experience!” is the key word in the group’s repertoire of stirring gospel standards, traditional Western classical songs and a few surprises that could be described as a musical evangelistic meeting. Tickets are available for the 7:30 p.m. performance.

“We believe in the transformational power of music. One of the big questions I’ve asked myself and my colleagues during this pandemic is are we going to serve the same musical menu we did before the pandemic,” said the group’s namesake and artistic director. “We really need to speak to the mind, yes, but we need to speak to people’s heart as well and try to as performances not dodge from the social maladies.

“We have to address them in our own way, and many of these songs – if not all of these songs – speak to something. We’re just so glad to present a program that can hopefully cross many of these bridges that need to be crossed.

“These talented singers breathe life into the works of outstanding composers and audiences have been so receptive. One of the concerts we made a joke saying ‘you guys just need to stand for the whole concert’ because they kept standing with applause after every song.”

Two Decades in the Making

A year into this journey that debuted with a performance for “Live From London – Spring!” –  an online response to keep the arts alive during the COVID-19 pandemic – Ferdinand has seen his project idea of nearly 20 years “birthed” and steadily reaching maturity.   

“It’s always quietly been in the back of my mind, and maybe three years ago I started developing the concept again and started reaching out to a wide range of singers. But when COVID hit, I put it back on the shelf,” he said. “The push and the nudge came in January 2021, and it just seemed like fertile soil to start something.

“We had five and a half weeks to put it together for ‘Live’. We didn’t get to really rehearse until we got together the day of the first recording session. The group has clearly gotten better musically since the debut by virtue of singing more together.”

A Large Network

Jason Max Ferdinand, PhD, is chair of the music department and director of choral activities at Oakwood University in Huntsville, Alabama. A sizable contact list and trained ear were instrumental in assembling the range of talent on stage from across the country.

“Some of them I met while I was an undergrad at Oakwood University, and some of them I met while I was a graduate student at Morgan State University. Others I taught here at Oakwood and a fraction I had never met before,” said Ferdinand, who received his doctorate in choral conducting from the University of Maryland. “I had seen them on social media or had recommendations from friends and reached out and shared the idea with them.”

Cedric the Entertainer

Vocal and instrument solos are intermixed in the ensemble’s presentations. Cedric Dent, a 10-time Grammy Award winner with the vocal group TAKE 6 and Gospel Music Hall of Fame member, is the arranger-in-residence and an ensemble member. His arrangement of “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” and “Precious Lord” – which he’ll perform – are among the songs listed in the program for the BJU concert.

“I’m so surprised that Cedric is in the group,” Ferdinand said of his colleague, who is a faculty member at Middle Tennessee State University. “I was talking to Cedric about his arrangement of ‘He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands’ and he said, ‘This sounds exciting. I want to sing. I haven’t sung in choirs since high school.’ I said, ‘What? You want to join us?’

“He’s so much fun to be around. He’s taking it all in like the rest of us and believes in what we’re doing.”

Message of Hope

Most of the musical numbers in the program will be familiar. Clapping along is encouraged.

“Part of the repertoire (is what) we rolled out initially, and we have a few new things that we’ll roll out for the Bob Jones concert, so that will be a surprise,” Ferdinand said. “From a larger picture, a lot of the songs speak to us about what’s been happening in the world the last two years and we just want to be true to that message. Songs like ‘Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen’ – everyone can attest to that in some form or fashion these last few months.

“It’s just been one thing after the next, but we continue to be hopeful and remain positive. Hopefully, these songs will reach someone in the audience and speak to their situation.”