Young choir sails a musical river

January 12, 1994|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Music Critic

David Lockington thought the Baltimore Symphony's annual "Let Freedom Ring" concert -- its musical celebration honoring the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. -- needed "a kick in the pants."

That's exactly what the BSO's associate conductor has done for the concert tomorrow night in Meyerhoff Hall. Instead of the usual all-orchestra program, the concert will be a multi-media show. It will not only feature mature soloists, such as the baritone Jubilant Sykes and the pianist Eric Conway, but also youngsters from Baltimore high schools in performances of dance, a dramatic presentation about Dr. King, and in spirituals sung by the City-Wide Student Chorus.

The formation of the chorus was Lockington's idea.

"It was very important to me to have young people involved in this concert," the British-born conductor, 36, says.

"For many young people, Martin Luther King is just a shadowy figure from the past who does not play as important a part in their imaginations as Malcolm X."

Lockington regards the formation of the 150-member chorus as perhaps the most important thing he's done in his two years in Baltimore. A chorus of Baltimore high school students existed several years ago, but it died for several reasons, including a lack of funds.

"David's had this dream, ever since he arrived, of a choir of high school students," says Dorothy Wright, the orchestra's community outreach manager.

Lockington's interest was apparent last week as the chorus rehearsed for the first time, doing the great spiritual "Deep River" in a rehearsal room at the symphony's headquarters on Cathedral Street.

He led the chorus through the song once. It was apparent few of them knew it.

"How many of you have heard this before?" he asked.

Twelve students raised their hands.

"How many of you have sung it?" he added.

Six students raised their hands.

"Up until about 25 years ago, you would never have seen so many [African-American] youngsters who didn't know this song," said Jewell Churn, a music coordinator for Baltimore schools, who helped select students for the choir.

"These kids don't have any idea of their cultural heritage and why these songs should be important to them. Their ignorance is one of the best arguments for an African-American infusion into the curriculum."

But Lockington knew the song.

" 'Deep River' -- out of this phrase I want you to make a crossing of the river," he told them. "Make a crescendo into river."

The chorus sang the line.

"I didn't hear a crescendo into river," the conductor said.

Over the next 90 minutes, Lockington went through the song, sometimes syllable by syllable, using a combination of charm, humor and, most of all, his own passion for the music, to make the youngsters work.

"There's magic in 'promised land' and you have to find it," Lockington told the students about the song's climax.

"That last repetition of 'deep river' -- you must feel that it can go on forever," he added, explaining how the diminuendo and the ritard markings of the phrase make concrete the idea of eternity. "Don't make a gap in 'ri-ver' -- because this river's going on forever."

At the rehearsal's conclusion, Lockington gave a short address to the students.

"This will be the first time so many young people have been with the symphony," he said.

"We have to show all the professional quality we can come up with. If we perform well, it will open up doors that will make it possible for you to do beautiful things. If I can look into your eyes, know that you're there with me, and know that we have a shared concept, we can do magic together."

After the students departed, Lockington said: "With kids, you usually get only about 60-70 percent of what you really want. But if they feel themselves part of something really important, you can accomplish miracles. I want to create opportunities for them to perform. We'll be doing another concert in February -- one for which there's a possibility for televising. If other kids see them up there doing this, there will be a snowball effect."

One of the reasons for Lockington's interest in African-American culture, and underlying his desire to make tomorrow's concert special, may be that two of his three children were adopted -- his youngest, Devan, 3, and his oldest, Mariama, 9 -- and are themselves African-Americans.

"If I can create beauty and offer beauty whenever possible and combat racism in the white community wherever possible, I'll feel that I'm doing my part," he said. "If I had a dream, this wouldn't be a special, once-a-year concert, but a regular offering to the whole community that would enrich all our cultural lives."

LET FREEDOM RING'

What: BSO's "Let Freedom Ring" concert, a program of music, dance and drama honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Where: Meyerhoff Hall

When: Thursday at 8:15 p.m.

Tickets: General admission, $5, children, six or older are free. Call the BSO box office, 783-8000, for further information.

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