The Smithsonian's Black American Culture Program opened its fourth season last night at Baird Auditorium by honoring the Rev. William Herbert Brewster with a musical retrospective. For most of the century, Brewster, now 83, has been a leading composer of gospel music, with more than 200 songs to his credit. The tribute was, as promised, a musical journey meant not "just to entertain but to inspire." Making it so was a combination of Brewster's eloquent and often humorous commentaries (he served as narrator) and the sumptuous harmonies of Sweet Honey in the Rock.
Fortunately, Brewster's songs, many of them now standards in the gospel repertoire, are varied enough to allow Sweet Honey to display its many strengths. An exquisite a cappella version of "Leaning and Depending on the Lord" stilled the auditorium, while the hand-clapping, call-and-response fervor of other numbers encouraged the crowd to shout out "Amens" and "Hallelujahs."
"It takes fire in this business," said Brewster at one point, stressing the need of the clergy to move a congregation. In the end, both Sweet Honey in the Rock and Brewster had fire to spare.
An all-day colloquium on Brewster's music is scheduled for today, followed by a repeat concert tonight. A performance of his play "Sowing in Tears, Reaping in Joy" concludes the tribute tomorrow afternoon.