Stars, BSO tapped for museum benefit

October 25, 2003|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

Even without James Earl Jones' stentorian tones to urge them on, officials and supporters of the planned Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture couldn't crow loudly enough about their fund-raising gala, set for Dec. 11 and featuring the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

Jones, who will be among those onstage for the event, was detained in New York and couldn't attend yesterday morning's press conference at the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. But those who were there, including Mayor Martin O'Malley, state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, NAACP President Kweisi Mfume and museum board chair George Russell, refused to let anything dampen their enthusiasm for an event they hope will add $1 million to the museum's coffers.

In addition to Jones, comedian Bill Cosby and talk-show host Montel Williams (who also happens to be Russell's nephew) will be onstage for the gala. Joining the BSO will be the Morgan State University Choir, under the direction of Nathan Carter, and the Sandtown Children of Praise Choir. Grammy-nominated vocalist Nnenna Freelon will sing her hit "One Child at a Time."

"There's going to be mandatory attendance for everyone in the city of Baltimore," joked O'Malley. More seriously, he expressed pride at how the region's business and civic leaders already have banded together to "take it upon ourselves to make the telling of this story part of our civic responsibility."

Russell, who was roundly praised yesterday as the man whose vision proved the driving force behind the museum, seemed awed by the concert's scope.

"Never before has a nonprofit venture undertaken such an event," he said.

Among the works to be performed by the BSO are "Live the Dream: A Soulful Fanfare," a piece for orchestra and chorus by African-American composer David Alan Bunn, and "African Portraits," a 1990 work by Hannibal Lokumbe co-commissioned by the BSO. The piece evokes the life in a West African village before the invasion of Europeans and touches on many of the musical forms whose roots lie in the slave trade, including spiritual, blues and jazz.

The evening will also include a comedy routine by Cosby and a performance of "Birmingham Sunday" by the Morgan choir, with narration by Jones. Ambassadors from the African nations of South Africa, Mali, Senegal, Nigeria, Ethiopia and Ghana are expected to attend.

While dignitaries were urged before walking onto the Meyerhoff stage yesterday to push the concert as enthusiastically as possible, few could resist the temptation to speak in glowing terms about the museum.

Slated to open next year in a new building at Pratt and President streets, the 82,000- square-foot facility will be the largest on the East Coast dedicated to African-American history and culture. It was named in honor of Baltimore native Reginald F. Lewis, chairman and CEO of TLC Beatrice International, the first African-American business to crack the Fortune 500. Lewis died in 1993; his philanthropic foundation has donated $5 million to the museum.

"This is something for the entire community that, I think, is long overdue," said Louis Grasmick, the museum's fund-raising chairman. "Our message never changes: This is something that is right for the entire community.

Speakers also praised the new emphasis on African-American studies that will become part of the state's public-school curriculum in grades 3 through 12. With the museum as a key element of the new curriculum, Lewis' mother, Carolyn Fugett, seemed especially pleased.

"He'd be so happy that the children are such a big part of this museum," she said, "and will continue to be."

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