The 20-page booklet distributed at the first joint concert of two fine Triangle-based youth ensembles - the Martin Luther King, Jr., All-Children's Choir, directed by Randy Shepard, and the Triangle Youth Philharmonic, conducted by Hugh Partridge - proclaimed "A Day of Dialogue, Tribute, & Celebration for The Late Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.," but the holiday weekend's formal program embraced seven events, some of which overlapped, together with a parade in Durham and a memorial march in Raleigh, scheduled across a three-day period. The tributes and commemorations were coordinated by the Raleigh-Wake Martin Luther King [Jr.] Celebration Committee, Inc. (http://www.king-raleigh.org/ [inactive 5/05]), and funded by 17 corporate sponsors, including Capitol Broadcasting Company, the A.J. Fletcher Foundation, and a batch of other organizations not generally noted for their support of cultural events in the Triangle. The concert, presented on the evening of January 19 before a large and refreshingly diverse Meymandi Concert Hall audience, was a very big deal, introduced by Paul R. Pope, Jr., of CBC, anchored by Pam Saulsby and David Crabtree (of WRAL-TV), and carried live on CBC's digital channel 256. Along the way came remarks by the composer of one of the evening's featured works, special presentations by Celebration Committee Co-Chair Bruce Lightner, and a stirring tribute to Pierre Williams, the former MLK, Jr., chorister who was killed in a drive-by shooting in July 2002 (see http://www.wral.com/news/1578888/detail.html [inactive 12/06]). (It was, alas, not the first time that a premature death of a local citizen was commemorated during MLK, Jr., observations; back in 1993, composer J. Mark Scearce's "Benediction," written in response to the violent death of Ivan Lorenzo Ingram, was presented by the Raleigh Civic Symphony.)
From a purely musical standpoint, the program was astutely chosen. First heard was a brilliant Fanfare for full orchestra by William Grant Still, widely viewed as the Dean of African-American composers. This featured the TYP and was directed by Jason Brame, a flutist in the orchestra whose orchestral-leadership mentor is William Henry Curry, Interim Artistic Planning Advisor and Associate Conductor of the NC Symphony. The TYP then performed the finale of Dvorak's Symphony "From the New World," a complete performance of which work the orchestra gave (in the same venue) in late November 2002. Music Director Hugh Partridge led a glowing reading that garnered warm applause. Maestro Curry then gave a brief introduction to his "Eulogy for a Dream," which he said might be viewed as funeral music for Dr. King. The score was read in a preliminary form by the TYP, in 1997, premiered in Indianapolis in 1999 in its final version, and given here last year by the NC Symphony (on which occasion the narrator was William Warfield, whose performances in Raleigh were surely among his last public appearances). The texts are drawn from some of King's most moving speeches, and on this occasion the narrators were Brennan Horton and Alexis Davis. The music is traditional, richly scored, and often suggests some of the most moving works of previous generations, so it is an ideal vehicle for encapsulating King's words. The crowd seemed profoundly moved by the experience of hearing it rendered by young people, in whom are vested the hopes of many of us for a better tomorrow.
The second part of the program featured the MLK, Jr., All-Children's Choir, led for the most part by its founder and director, Randy Shepard and variously accompanied. (The program's chief shortcoming was its omission of the names of all of the participating artists.) "Angels Watching Over Me," arranged by pianist and vocalist Norris Garner, served as the musical tribute to Pierre Williams. Harry Dixon's "This Little Light of Mine" allowed the 100+-voice choir to shine in its extended treatment of the familiar tune, accompanied by a large rhythm section. Garner's own "Highest Praise," which involved the TYP, choral soloists, and guests, brought the crowd to its feet. The grand finale was a stirring reading of Peter Wilhousky's edition of "Battle Hymn of the Republic," with words by Julia Ward Howe - the tune was first known as "Say Brothers, Will You Meet Us on Canaan's Happy Shore?" and then "John Brown's Body."
Repertory selections by the two groups were quite admirably delivered; their joint endeavors were somewhat less polished, most likely due to limited rehearsal time. Nonetheless, here's hoping that these ensembles will find other opportunities for collaboration in the future.
It was a busy week for Curry. On Monday evening, January 20, he directed the Tar River Orchestra, at NC Wesleyan College, in Rocky Mount, in another King tribute, which featured his own "Eulogy," this time narrated by Ellued Wilson and Chirleyse Costen. The TRO's small string section delivered a stirring reading of George Walker's "Lyric for Strings," the full orchestra played several Joplin rags (in Schuller's orchestrations) and a selection from Gould's "American Ballads" that, like Curry's own "Eulogy," quotes a bit of "We shall overcome." (This tune is given boldly in Gould's adaptation; it is quite ghostly and then curtailed at the end of Curry's.) The Tar River Chorus (and guests) sang several numbers under the direction of Elizabeth Winstead, 2003 Martin Luther King, Jr., Oratorical Contest Winners Tierra Norwood and Tiffany Vines delivered brief recitations (the narrators of "Eulogy" were last year's winners), and the distinguished gospel singer Luther Barnes sang three moving and heart-felt numbers with his Ensemble. The overall results were far more than the sum of the evening's various parts - this was a fine event that, through music and prose, helped unite the diverse audience by constantly underscoring the relevance and meaning of King's life. It may be worth noting, too, that not since the Swalin era ended thirty years ago has the NC Symphony had a conductor who has involved himself more than Curry in the greater musical life of our state.
Curry then left North Carolina the following day for a week in Indianapolis, birthplace (as it were) of "Eulogy," where he is to conduct two concerts with that city's orchestra and pianist Christopher Taylor. The program there included William Bolcom's Piano Concerto, together with the premiere of Herman Whitfield's Scherzo, two of Sibelius' Legends, and Tchaikovsky's "Francesca da Rimini."