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Choral Performance Offers Tribute to Martin Luther King - 2002-01-16

In the United States, the third Monday of January is designated a national holiday commemorating the January 15 birthday of African-American civil rights leader Martin Luther King. This past week, communities around the country have gathered for lectures, meetings, prayers, concerts and other events designed to keep alive Dr. King's message of peace and unity.

One of America's foremost music organizations, the Choral Arts Society of Washington, has held concerts in honor of the slain civil rights leader for more than 30 years.

The Choral Arts Society opened its January concert at the Kennedy Center in Washington with 20th century English composer John Ireland's motet "Greater Love Hath No Man." Norman Scribner, the music director and founder of the Choral Arts Society of Washington said, "And the continuation of the text is: '...than this that hath laid down his life for his neighbor.' This is in memory of not only Dr. Martin Luther King, but also the more recent martyrdom of so many heroes and victims of the September 11 attacks. And we thought it was a very appropriate text to start the program with."

The Choral Arts Society of Washington is a symphonic choir of about 200 professional-caliber volunteer singers. The group is now in its 37th season. Norman Scribner organized the group's first memorial concert to Martin Luther King in 1969, the year after Dr. King's assassination. Dr. King was assassinated in April of 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee. The choral tribute to the slain civil rights leader became an annual event in 1986, when President Reagan declared the third Monday in January a national holiday honoring Martin Luther King's birthday.

Maestro Scribner said, "In 1969 we started our format, which has endured, when we invite choirs from all over the city to join in our celebration of the true message of Dr. Martin Luther King. And that is that all of us are brothers and sisters under one God and nothing shows that more beautifully than singing music together."

And in this spirit, the Society's annual tribute to Martin Luther King offers programs of all kinds of music - from classical, jazz and gospel to rock, pop and rap.

Norman Scribner says he is striving to make the program as diverse as possible. He said, "We have been so fortunate to have many, many gorgeous, beautiful ensembles - both vocal and also non-vocal. We have had a jazz band, we've had a steel drum ensemble, we've had dance groups, we have had solo sets, we've had really a great variety [of performers]."

This year, a gospel choir "The Heritage Signature Chorale," the Boys Choir of Washington D.C., Coyaba Dance Theater and a number of solo performers join the Choral Arts Society in celebrating Martin Luther King's birthday.

In the past few years, the Choral Arts Society has been commissioning new works for the Martin Luther King event each January. This year their choice is composer and organist Nicholas White, the music director of Saint Michael's Church in New York City. Mr. White said, "My initial reaction was what a great honor to write a piece for this event because I've known of it from my time here in Washington."

The British-born composer spent four years as assistant organist at the Washington National Cathedral. He said he decided to set his music to three English poems that in his opinion reflect the message of the American civil rights leader.

"I chose one poem," he said, "which has always been a favorite of mine, and has been set to music several times. It's called 'Peace' by [17th century English poet] Henry Vaughan. And that opens the work. The second poem is actually a fragment of the 'Essay on Man' by (early 18th century English poet) Alexander Pope and it also incorporates some elements of the Mass text, which the children's choir sing. And the third poem was written by Ronald Orchard who was an old family friend of mine in England and only started writing poetry about ten years before his death. After his death, his widow published a small collection of his poems and I was just leafing through them and found this one.. it was actually a line [from this poem] that named the piece 'Full Freedom.' It comes at the end of the first stanza."

"Full Freedom" by Nicholas White is performed by three choirs and a solo tenor, accompanied by piano, organ, soprano saxophone, timpani and drums. Mr. White said, "I would describe it as a journey, I think. It begins with this very exultant feeling, the opening of, 'My soul, there is a country afar beyond the stars,' sort of imaginary; what we have a feeling the heaven might be like, and then it goes through some questioning in the [Pope's] 'Essay on Man', 'What if the head ordained the hand instead of the hand ordaining the head.' I mean, reversing the roles of how we think about how we should operate in life. And then the final poem is the beautiful, beautiful lyrical idea of a woman dying and the way he [the poet] puts it is that she lays down her musical instrument and goes to meet God and all the implications of that. So it's really caught my eyes, a wonderful way of using imagery of a woman laying down her instrument, and having played her final note."

Although the program varies greatly from year to year, some things remain unchanged. Music director Norman Scribner said he likes to end the tribute with one of Dr. King's favorite hymns "Precious Lord, Hold My Hand."

Mr. Scribner said, "This is in memory of the fact that Dr. King himself - his last words were to request that this hymn be sung, the evening he was assassinated, at the affair that he was going to. So we honor that request on an annual basis."

And every year the audience at the Kennedy Center enthusiastically joins the Choral Art Society's performance of "Precious Lord, Take My Hand."