''You know, gospel music isn't about getting it right,'' a Gospel Meets Symphony chorus member told Christopher Wilkins three years ago, his first year of involvement with the annual concert. ''You don't have to worry.''
Wilkins, maestro for the Akron Symphony Orchestra, was so relieved to hear those words, his shoulders dropped and he exhaled. Gospel music was a new genre for Akron's new conductor, whose classical work had always been about getting it right.
''I'd never really encountered gospel music except on the radio before,'' he said.
Wilkins began his immersion in the gospel tradition by listening closely and learning from those around him, including former Gospel Meets Symphony choir master Raymond Wise, current choir master Jennifer Jones and Chuck Myricks Jr., one of the creators of Gospel Meets Symphony.
''It's taken a while for me to just find my way in this, honestly,'' Wilkins said.
On Saturday at the University of Akron's E.J. Thomas Hall, Wilkins for the first time will conduct Akron's celebrated fusion of musical genres in its entirety.
''All I need to do is be present with all my heart — and connecting with this incredible group of people who just love what they're doing,'' Wilkins said. ''And whatever comes out, it's authentic.''
In previous years, guest conductors have taken the baton for the January event, with newcomer Wilkins conducting a couple of pieces. Gospel Meets Symphony was founded 17 years ago by late Akron Symphony maestro Alan Balter, who drew upon the rich vocal talents of gospel singers primarily from the Akron area's black churches.
Previously, guest conductors have brought in outside arrangements as well as their own musicians or soloists. This year, the whole program is homegrown.
Return to origin
''This is sort of a return to Alan's original vision, which is a musical experience that arises from the community,'' Wilkins said. ''It's amazing how much talent there is in Akron.''
The maestro stressed that both gospel and classical grew from the same roots: Western harmony. They simply approach the music from different angles.
Classical music is tied to set, written music on the page while gospel music is an aural tradition that grew out of improvisation. In orchestral conducting, gestures are aligned with the written music. But in gospel music, the director conducts according to how the music sounds.
Several pieces on this year's program have a nice mix of classical and gospel styles, Wilkins said. Battle Hymn of the Republic, for chorus and orchestra, is a traditional song of a spiritual nature. Mary Wore Three Links of Chain, a centuries-old spiritual, is set like an English psalm.
''It's very much out of the English choral tradition,'' Wilkins said.
At the other end of the spectrum, classical pieces will include Handel's Largo from Xerxes, for chorus and orchestra, and Verdi's overture to La forza del destino, for orchestra only.
This year, 60 new gospel singers are part of the more than 200 from 83 Akron-area churches. They range from professional musicians to those who have never taken a voice lesson or don't read music.
''They all contribute. They all get a lot out of it,'' Wilkins said.
Performing in Gospel Meets Symphony isn't about how accomplished a singer you are: ''It's just about opening up into the experience,'' Wilkins said.
Wilkins says the two genres complement each other in fun and wonderful ways.
''Gospel music gives a rhythm and excitement, a power, a deep human connection to what we do as orchestral musicians. And orchestral music gives to gospel a grand sweep — an epic scale for all of this.''
This year, Gospel Meets Symphony will cut across genre and age divisions, the maestro said. New to the program will be singers from YEPAW 365, an Akron program that employs the arts to help youths pursue excellence.
The concert also will feature two songs from Myrick's new musical, The Life of David, and the piece Brother by French horn player Cynthia Wulff, inspired by a moving experience she had observing a homeless man.
Wilkins said orchestral musicians tend to dive into the music and fine-tune the expression later. But the gospel singers took the opposite approach to Wulff's Brother. They wanted to know the composition's full back story of the homeless man before they began singing it.
The piece about compassion for the homeless is fitting in these difficult economic times, said symphony spokesman Jason Swank: ''You literally have homeless people in this choir who make this event a priority in their lives.''
At a recent choir rehearsal at Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Akron, the singers formed lines to massage each other's shoulders. Choir master Jones revved the choir up with prayer and a rousing warmup song, God Will Take Care of You, and then introduced guest director Leslie Parker Barnes of YEPAW.
''Miss Leslie, come up and let God have his way!'' Jones declared.
''The more energy I have, the more they give back,'' Jones explained. ''The wonderful thing about this chorus is they're family.
''They're black, white and everyone working together.''
Jones, whose mother, Esterline Jones, is a legendary gospel keyboard player in the Akron community, is leading the chorus for her second year, with her mother singing alto. An Akron native, the younger Jones was a vocal performance major at the University of Akron and is director of the youth choir and special groups at Mount Calvary Baptist.
Directing the Akron Symphony Gospel Choir, Jennifer gets to blend the participatory style church music of her upbringing with her classical performance background.
Soprano Lois Lumsden of Lakeside Christian Church in Bath Township said she was in the Gospel Meets Symphony audience 17 years ago but has been singing with the group ever since.
''It's such a God thing,'' Lumsden said of her choice to join.
After 40 years of learning church choir music in the written tradition, she now prefers to learn by ear.
''This is a much better way to learn music. When you learn this way, you have it forever in your heart,'' she said.
Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or at email@example.com.
• Event: Gospel Meets Symphony
• When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
• Where: E.J. Thomas Hall, University of Akron, 198 Hill St.
• Onstage: Akron Symphony Orchestra, Gospel Meets Symphony choir, special guest Chuck Myricks, YEPAW 365
• Cost: $15-$40
• Information: 330-972-7570, 800-745-3000 or http://www.ticketmaster.com