ONE OF THE LARGEST crowds in Baltimore on the eve of possible war last night was at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall to hear music honoring the man of peace, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., on his 62nd birthday. The irony for the 2,100 was deafening.
The possibility of war within hours was on every mind and hung on every note of the stunning gospel singer Vanessa Bell Armstrong, Delta blues guitarist David "Honeyboy" Edwards and sensational trumpeter Hannibal Peterson. "Let Freedom Ring" was a night for vivid music and heavy hearts.
Virginia Sykes, a Baltimore Sun receptionist, came last night to rTC keep from worrying about her granddaughter, a Marine staff sergeant in Saudi Arabia. "We all got together Sunday and had a good cry and prayed together," she said. "We know what's going to happen over there. I know many here have people over there." After the concert, she said, "It was good to hear the music and Dr. King but now I'll worry again."
Recorded segments of two King speeches haunted the evening -- his last speech before his death: "We have got difficult days ahead...I am happy tonight that I am not worried about anything...Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord."
And from his "I have a dream" speech: "Let freedom ring. And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true. So let freedom ring..."
Gov. William Donald Schaefer, praising King's "message of freedom" early on, was sympathizing with the tough decisions to be made by President Bush when a single protester interrupted from the balcony with two extremely loud and solitary boos that startled the full house. "While you can boo, young man, you don't have to make a decision," Schaefer said. The man was not apprehended. Police earlier moved away a small anti-war protest outside.
Mayor Kurt Schmoke mainly talked of the King message of turning "hatred into love, anger into forgiveness, despair into hope." But while the focus is on the Middle East now, Schmoke said, forget not "human rights in South Africa, Lithuania and at home, where the struggle for rights has become the struggle for equal opportunity. ... Sooner or later," he said, "we have to live in peace."
Both politicians appeared separately.
Dr. Nathan Carter heated up the crowd with his Morgan State University Choir singing two spirituals. Soprano Kishna Davis sang a delicious solo part in an especially vibrant "You Must Have That True Religion," ending in a thrilling high climax by the 80 voices.
Despite war fears, last night's 90-minute program was for many concert-goers perfectly timed because of King's legacy of peace and freedom. Paul Lustig Dunkel, of the New York American Composers Orchestra, briskly conducted the Baltimore premiere of the 50-minute "African Portraits," with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra as a lively team player.
Some portraits were more like snapshots, but nevertheless it was a dramatic album of African-American events from 16th century West Africa, to a Charleston slave auction and 20th century scenes in Texas, Mississippi and New York.
Six American Heritage Dancers and Drummers from Washington banged open the show from off-stage and then led in the troupe of solo singers and Peterson's quartet. Peterson went all out in a supersonic trumpet solo. Yet the emotional sparks of the evening flowed from Armstrong in a stirring spiritual "Lord give me a sign." Armstrong, who sang the theme song of the television show "Amen," was the perfect leader for all joining in on "We Shall Overcome."
WJHU (88.1 FM) will broadcast the program at 11 a.m. Jan. 20 and 9 p.m. Jan. 21. WEAA (88.9 FM) will broadcast the program at 8 p.m. tomorrow and 2 p.m. Jan. 21.