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They sing it like they mean it

Judith Permann, center, is the accompanist for the Gospellers, a group of singers from United Church of Christ congregations from across Wisconsin.1 / 2
Kate Jennings, center with microphone, sings a solo with the Gospellers at a church in Germany. <i>Submitted photos</i>2 / 2

He wanted nothing inappropriate or disrespectful, warned the Catholic priest at the large church in Poland just before the choir began its performance.

"We thought, 'What do we do?'" said Kate Jennings, Baldwin.

With only about an hour until their prepared concert of American gospel songs, the Gospellers from Wisconsin could hardly change their repertoire.

"I'm the one who gets things cranking in the concert," said Jennings, who was especially concerned.

The choir's first three songs are intended to warm the audience up, but her fourth-song solo was intended to bring listeners to their feet.

The choir director told his singers that the church had invited a gospel choir and it was going to get gospel music.

"The highlight (of that concert) for me was watching that priest start to melt," said Jennings, who kept an eye on the man as she threw herself into the music. "He started to sway, and he started to clap." The parishioners joined in.

"That was adorable," agreed Judith Permann, River Falls, piano accompanist for the choir.

Truth be told, gospel music wasn't the native style of music for Jennings, Permann or the other 28 Wisconsin United Church of Christ members in their choir.

They were recruited by Fritz West, a retired UCC pastor now living in Marine on St. Croix, Minn., who had visited Germany and persuaded a group of gospel singers from that country to come to the United States.

American gospel music has become quite popular in Western Europe, explained Jennings and Permann. Eighty gospel choirs perform in Berlin alone and the country boasts about 2,000, all singing in English.

After the German group, the West End Gospel Singers, toured here in 2006, Fritz West decided to reciprocate "with a Wisconsin gospel choir that didn't exist," said Jennings.

He recruited Jennings, who in turn recruited Permann. Other singers were gathered from as far away as Sheboygan and from Wausau to Janesville. They come from 20 congregations and range in age from 46 to 84.

Jennings said their director calls them "the frozen chosen," referring to their initial resistance to the exuberance of gospel choirs.

"That is not who we are," said Jennings. But, she added, "Although it's not in our background, it has become a love of ours."

Jennings herself has been widely praised for the vocal range of her solo rendition of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot."

"I had an old guy in Poland come up to me and say, 'Three octavios,' and kiss me on the cheek," she says, obviously charmed by the man's reaction.

The Wisconsin choir's first tour was in 2008. The German choir came back here in 2010, and about a year ago the Wisconsin singers began preparing for their second tour to Germany.

The Gospellers were invited by the Evangelical Church of Berlin-Brandenburg-Silesia-Oberlausitz and hosted by the congregation in Eberswalde, 35 miles from Berlin.

The choir has been trained by Robert Robinson, a Minneapolis-based gospel artist.

In preparation for their tours, choir members embark on a year of monthly rehearsals. Because the singers come from across Wisconsin, many of the rehearsals are held at the same time but in two separate locations.

"The first time I went, I felt very over my head," said Jennings of the initial tour.

The choir had had limited rehearsals and as the soloist, she carried much of the burden in a musical style outside her background.

"But by golly when I'm in Germany, I'm a gospel singer," she declared. "By the time we get there and the pressure is on, we pull it together."

Permann agreed. "I'm not an improviser as far as gospel music, but as long as it's on the page, I'll do it."

She added, "When you start to think about it, this is a choir that does not exist save for the 10 months before the tour. It's like saying, 'Have 12 rehearsals and go on tour.'

"If you think about it, this is very scary."

This year the tour was Aug. 7-22, and the choir performed 12 concerts in two weeks. They sang in tiny village churches and in a huge historic cathedral. On this tour the choir spent most of its time in smaller towns that hadn't been damaged during World War II, including Erfurt, Eisenach and Quedlinburg.

Choir members stayed in homes of local families, and their hosts kept them busy.

"We'd tour all day and sing at night," said Permann.

Jennings said the group visited "smaller very jewel-like cities," adding that this time the group visited places that aren't in the guidebooks.

"We walked mostly on cobblestone," agreed Permann.

"This time we were singing to people who didn't have their own (church) choirs," she said.

Judy Wiff

Judy Wiff has been regional editor for RiverTown’s Wisconsin newspapers since 1996. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and sociology from UW-River Falls. She has worked as a reporter for several weekly newspapers in Wisconsin.