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January 8, 2009

MLK concert gets lift from Marin, Mfume, Moore

Speeches and music-making are typically mixed at concerts honoring Martin Luther King. That combination worked out particularly well last night, when the BSO and Maryland Commission on African American History and Culture presented the 23rd MLK Tribute at the Meyerhoff.

This month's inauguration in Washington was referenced often in remarks by various participants, but King remained the center of attention, especially in the major work on the program. His words are integrated into New Morning for the World, a 1982 score by Joseph Schwantner, one of the most effective pieces for narrator and orchestra since Copland's Lincoln Portrait.

The choice of texts is astute, containing some of King's most incisive and poetic thoughts about equality and justice, and the composer's music manages to anticipate, underline and reflect on those texts with equal power. Schwantner largely avoids the obvious and melodramatic; the sober coda reminds the listener of the magnitude of King's loss, the hopes that remain unfulfilled.

Marin Alsop, conducting her first MLK concert here, fashioned a strong, cohesive performance from the combined forces of the BSO and the Soulful Symphony. She drew lush sounds from the strings in the lyrical passages and finely articulated work from the prominent percussion section. She had a terrific ally in narrator Kweisi Mfume (above right), who recited King's words vividly, without ever straining for effect.

Alsop turned over the podium to ...

Joseph YoungJoseph Young, the BSO-Peabody Conducting Fellow and recent recipient of the Sir Georg Solti Foundation Career Grant, for a performance of Global Warming, a 1991 score by Michael Abels. It's not so much an environmentalist piece as a can't-we-all-get-along exercise. Abels introduces more or less Celtic-flavored idioms, followed by more or less Middle Eastern ones, then puts them together. It's easy on the ears, if a little light on musical depth. Young (right) had the music flowing smoothly. Concertmaster Jonathan Carney and principal cellist Ilya Finkelshteyn brought plenty of flair to the solo flurries at the start of the work, which suggest a kind of blue-grassy take on Vaughan Williams' The Lark Ascending.

The Baltimore City College Choir offered spirited, expressive singing in several selections on the program, especially Mark Butler's a cappella "Signs of the Judgement," led by director Linda Hall. Whatever technical unevenness the ensemble encountered during the evening was easily overlooked in light of the dynamic styling, which vibrantly propelled the concluding performance of Richard Smallwood's surefire "Total Praise," conducted by Alsop.

Two non-musical items on the program left a potent mark. Delores Moore, spendidly attired for the occasion (her opening line was, "Do you like my dress?"), held the hall in her hands as she told her winning entry in the Stoop Storytelling Series, a childhood memory of meeting Dr. King. Moore proved to be a natural, disarming word-spinner.

Elijah CummingsAnd Congressman Elijah Cummings (left) delivered a short, stirring address that concluded with the lyrics to a Garth Brooks song, "We Shall Be Free," that fit the occasion perfectly:

When the last child cries for a crust of bread/When the last man dies for just words that he said/When there's shelter over the poorest head/We shall be free/When the last thing we notice is the color of skin/And the first thing we look for is the beauty within ... Then we shall be free ...

My own favorite lines (I conress I had never heard of the song) were these: When we're free to love anyone we choose/When this world's big enough for all different views/When we all can worship from our own kind of pew/Then we shall be free.

That had me wondering how many people are truly ready to embrace such a vision, especially the "love anyone we choose" part, which seems to me like the ultimate extension of King's philosophy. Given recent events around the country, I fear we still have a long, long way to go.


Posted by Tim Smith at 1:41 PM | | Comments (0)

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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