More than 300 singers from the Washington area, as well as a dance troupe from West Africa, gathered recently to perform in the Choral Arts Society of Washington's 15th annual Choral Tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. For one night only, the sold out concert at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts featured traditional music as well as the world premier of a new work; all part of a long-standing Washington tradition celebrating the birthday and legacy of the slain civil rights leader who promoted peace through non-violence.
"This is a humanitarian event. It's an event that celebrates things that tie all of us together. And nothing says it better, everyone being the same, than music. Nothing says it better, " explains Norman Scribner, founder and director of the Choral Arts Society of Washington, one of the major symphonic choruses in the country.
"The tradition of the concert for Martin Luther King's birthday is that his legacy is so incredibly potent, it really arches over the span of the 20th century," he says. "He didn't live over the entire 20th century. But when you think of what happened in that century, we began to understand that all different factions around the country had to live together not only had to but should live together and could rejoice and take joy in that. And this man has come out of the 20th century experience as being the primary spokesman for this cause."
In addition to the individual performances by several Washington area choirs, Mr. Scribner says he is excited about how they all come together to sing the world premier of a specially commissioned work. This year, It is an a cappella piece entitled Truth Pressed to Earth (Shall Rise) by Ysaye M. Barnwell, composer and singer in the internationally-acclaimed a cappella group, Sweet Honey in the Rock.
"And it's all from the writings of Martin Luther King," explains Mr. Scribner. "She went into a thorough investigation of all of his words with the idea of trying to find out which of his words would be relevant to today's world. Had he lived, which of the things that the said back, prior to 1968 when he was killed, would he be saying now? And she's made a fabulous text selection and made a fabulous musical selection which will go into the standard repertory, I'm sure and tonight it's being sung for the very first time."
In addition to Ysaye Barnwell's new work, the Choral Arts Society's Tribute to Martin Luther King included a newsreel of Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech. There was dancing by the KanKouran West African Dance Company; and choral director Norman Scribner also invited the audience to participate in some traditional spiritual songs. Mr. Scribner, the son of a Methodist minister, says the Martin Luther King Birthday Concert strikes a personal chord with him.
"And I do view everything in life through a spiritual lens and this concert is as close to spiritual things as you can get," he says. "We do big settings of the Christian Mass, the Latin Mass and the story of the Passion Story of Christ and Handel's Messiah. And all these wonderful big religious works. But in the message of Martin Luther King, you're talking about something that effects everyone at the most basic grassroots level. And for me, I get very emotionally wrapped up in it. I get emotionally wrapped up with other music as well, but this one I just can't resist. It's a visceral thing every year I cry at the end, every single solitary year."
Norman Scribner, music director of the Choral Arts Society of Washington, spoke at the Choral Tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.