The “How Sweet the Sound” church choir competition is, literally, glorious.
Still, there could be only one winner among the eight area ensembles, and New Direction Christian Church walked way with top honors Thursday night, earning cash prizes and a trip to Atlanta Nov. 8 for the finals against winning choirs in 10 other cities. The competition was held before an enthusiastic audience of almost 5,200 at FedExForum.
This was the second win for New Direction, which won last year during, the first year for the competition. Last year, Verizon Wireless, the event host, brought together nine semifinalists out of more than 70 entrants. That competition, held only in Memphis, was successful enough that Verizon expanded it this year to semifinal competitions in 11 cities around the country.
The national winner will be deemed the Best Church Choir in America and receive a $25,000 prize.
Rod Hughes, choir director at New Direction, was feeling the love Thursday night after the awards were announced, saying the return of How Sweet The Sound was a plus for the region. “It’s a pat on the back to Memphis because we were like a pilot last year,” he said. “Kudos to the city; Memphis is the trend setter.”
New Direction received three prizes. In addition to being the best in the Mid-South, the choir won in the large choir category (with a $10,000 prize) and in a poll where audience members voted by text messaging (which came with a $5,000 prize).
The winner in the small choir division was the young adult choir from Mt. Vernon Baptist Church that also took a $10,000 check back to the congregation.
Mt. Vernon choir director Rashun Netters said, “Words can’t explain it, words cannot explain it.” But then, amid the elation he did explain it: “We got the song that we were supposed to sing and got it right at rehearsals and got the parts down and the music together and here we are.”
New Direction’s winning version of “Set Me Free” thrilled the audience with its dramatic opening where choir members filed on stage chained to each other. The number began with the singers bent over but soon were casting off the chains and rising up as the song went into high gear.
The production included Donald Lawrence, the Grammy Award-winning artist as emcee, and as judges, Marvin Sapp and Hezekiah Walker (both Grammy winners), and local personality Tracy Bethea of 95.7 Hallelujah FM. Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Bruce Sinofsky ("Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills") was on hand documenting the competition for Verizon Wireless.