Musical forces to rally for new Maryland museum

Meyerhoff gala will aid African- American museum

Classical Music

December 07, 2003|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,Sun Music Critic

If all goes according to plan, a new museum will open next summer dedicated to Maryland's African-American heritage. On Thursday night at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, the effort to see that museum reach fruition will get a substantial boost from a gala event that will commemorate the tragedy and triumph that is part of every African-American's heritage.

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Morgan State University Choir and a starry lineup of guest artists, including Bill Cosby, James Earl Jones and Nnenna Freelon, will be joined by local and national politicos, African ambassadors, corporate sponsors and lots of other folks interested in launching the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture. The mission of this gala -- raising $1 million for the museum's start-up costs -- will be fittingly reflected in music that is all about African-American history and culture.

One work in particular makes an ideal choice for the occasion -- Hannibal Lokumbe's African Portraits. This score calls for orchestra and chorus, along with gospel, blues and jazz soloists, as well as players of traditional African instruments. The result is "a chronicle of about 300 years in 50 minutes," says Leslie B. Dunner, who will conduct the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Morgan State University Choir in this performance.

"The piece has many disparate parts, and the style changes to reflect each different epoch in time," Dunner says. "The music keeps shifting like sand. It's very effective. And Hannibal has an uncanny ability to write for choir, finding new ways to utilize the human voice. The whole thing provides a multi-sensory assault."

African Portraits, co-commissioned by the BSO and American Composers Orchestra in 1990, is divided into two acts. The first, "The Drum and the Cross," opens with a scene of pastoral West African village life suddenly shattered by British slave traders. It is followed by a scene depicting the Middle Passage of the human cargo; in contrasting vocal solos, we hear the outrage of a young slave in the ship's hold and the captain's dispassionate letter to his wife ("Now I will read a few verses from Psalms and retire").

The second act, "The Land of Milk and Honey," opens with a stark dramatization of a slave auction in Charleston, S.C. "It's a short scene," Dunner says, "but it packs a wallop of impact. It's absolutely riveting. The audience will feel the horror and the shame."

From that tragic point, the music changes steadily in time, place and mood. There's a pleading gospel song for a scene titled "Victor Nelson's Cotton Field, Elgin, Texas, 1940." It will be sung by Jearlyn Steele.

A slice of blues is heard in the next scene, "Shaw, Mississippi, Delta Swamp, 1945." David "Honeyboy" Edwards will be featured here. And some high-voltage jazz will help evoke the next scene -- "The Three Dances Club, 52nd Street, New York City, 1952." Playing trumpet in the jazz quartet for this portion will be African Portraits' composer himself.

The music then moves toward a hopeful conclusion, with the chorus providing assurance: "You can find a way / Just look deep inside / You will see the magic / That makes all life worthwhile." An echo from the beginning of the piece -- the shattering cry of an African warrior, "Namolu!" (My people!) -- then leads into the work's concluding affirmation of love's power to purify "the troubled soul."

"Hannibal takes his audience on a journey," Dunner says. "If we are willing to go on that journey, there is the possibility of untold riches, of coming away with untold breadth. It's about the triumph over all that goes on in life, how we as a people can always triumph."

The program also offers a world premiere by another African-American composer, David Alan Bunn -- Live the Dream: A Soulful Fanfare. Dunner characterizes the new piece, scored for orchestra and chorus, as "very, very bold."

There's much more scheduled for this ambitious gala (underwritten by Comcast): a piece called Birmingham Sunday, with Nathan Carter leading the Morgan State Choir and James Earl Jones narrating; a solo by the Sandtown Children of Praise Choir; and a performance of One Child at a Time by jazz vocalist Freelon. Incidentally, her husband, architect Philip G. Freelon, is part of the Freelon / RTKL joint venture that did the award-winning design for the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture.

Given all the music and musicians being packed into a single evening (which also promises a comedy routine by Cosby, an appearance by Montel Williams and any number of speeches), the Chicago-based Dunner faces quite a challenge when he arrives this week. "There's never enough rehearsal time," the conductor says. "But I'm sure it's going to be great."


What: African American Museum Gala

Where: Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St.

When: 8 p.m. Thursday

Call: 410-783-8000 (limited ticket availability)

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