‘Gospel Mass’ features alumnus as guest director

Cornell College Assistant Professor of Music Christopher Nakielski, once the only white singer in a Chicago gospel choir, has always wanted to bring in an expert on performing gospel music.

Charles Thomas Hayes '77 rehearses the Cornell choirs in preparation for a performance of "The Gospel Mass."
Charles Thomas Hayes ’77 rehearses the Cornell choirs in preparation for a performance of “The Gospel Mass.”

He’s making that happen later this month by hosting Charles Thomas Hayes ’77 for a residency culminating in a Feb. 26 gospel and spirituals concert. The concert, open and free to the public, is at 7:30 p.m. in Kimmel Theatre and will be livestreamed to the Cornell College YouTube channel. Face masks are required for those in attendance.

The first half of the concert will feature Hayes and guest musicians. The second half features guest artists with Cornell’s treble chamber chorus and mixed-voice concert choir performing Robert Ray’s “The Gospel Mass.”

Hayes is coordinator of choral, vocal, and piano studies at Simmons College of Kentucky, a historically Black college. He will work with the choirs Feb. 21-26, and his guest artists arrive Wednesday to assist as section leaders and help the Cornell students learn through assimilation. Hayes said one of their plans is to coach the soloists to apply musical improvisation to a composed work. 

Christopher Nakielski
Christopher Nakielski

Hayes learned the nuances of “The Gospel Mass” from the composer himself. When Ray conducted the piece in Chicago in the late 1980s, Hayes played keyboard and prepared one of his choirs to perform as part of the mass choir. Ray subsequently recommended Hayes for a performance of the mass in Boston in the 1990s.

“CT Hayes will really be able to give us honest real-life instruction. He will work with us and provide technical advice to help us get that desirable ‘gospel sound’ that is not natural to a predominantly white choir,” says Nakielski. “We will embrace the uncomfortable and get a handle on a style that is indigenous to America.”

The student soloists are first-years Anderson “AJ” Jones and Talea Ellegan.

“One of the things I’m most excited about is that we are featuring two Cornell students of color. Once we programmed this piece and they auditioned for the solos, I could tell they grew up singing this style of music,” Nakielski said.  

Jones said it is an honor to be able to lead several of “The Gospel Mass” songs.

“I grew up in church, so I know a little bit about soul,” he said. “I’m from a family full of singers and musicians. Singing these songs kind of brings me back to those younger days. I really can’t wait for everyone to hear the amount of work we all put into this concert.”

Joining the choirs will be Nakielski’s father, the professional bassist Thomas Nakielski; Peter Grubisich on the drumset; Jess Monnier on piano; Arthur Griffin Jr. on electric organ, and Phyllis Griffin on violin. 

During the first half, Hayes and his guest artists will perform nine pieces showing the versatility of African American music. 

“Typically people think of African American music and musicians as being gospel, jazz, and blues. And while it is all of that, it is also classical music and traditional Negro spirituals,” he said. 

Hayes, who splits his time between Chicago and Kentucky, is bringing artists the Rev. Vickie D. Johnson, soprano; Jeffery Burish, tenor; Arthur Griffin Jr., organist, keyboard player, and singer; and violinist Phyllis Griffin. They will perform works ranging from Scott Joplin to Stevie Wonder.

When it came time to determine who should conduct “The Gospel Mass,” Nakielski and Hayes decided Hayes would do that, allowing Nakielski to sing with the choir. As a former Cornell music major, Hayes says it is meaningful to be asked to work with this generation of singers. 

“He is very cooperative, collegial, and respectful, I’m just very much looking forward to this collaboration,” Hayes said of working with Nakielski. “It feels like a full circle moment. I can hardly contain my enthusiasm!”