Music reflects life of a people

Music Review

December 12, 2003|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

With a fanfare composed for the occasion, last night's gala concert for the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture got off to a hard-driving start at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. By the time the event wrapped up nearly three hours later, the capacity audience had experienced a kind of musical preview of the museum.

The program offered the musical equivalent of exhibits on slavery, segregation, the civil rights struggle in the 20th century and the dedication to "turn the world around one child at a time."

Sharing the stage with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Morgan State University Choir (instrumentalists and choristers alike sported scarves adorned with vivid African patterns) were the Sandtown Children of Praise, vocalist Nnenna Freelon and actor James Earl Jones. Everyone was pretty much upstaged by Bill Cosby, whose preacher-style monologue early in the proceedings had the flair of an extended coloratura aria, part-comic, part-tragic. A tough act to follow.

Still, the musical forces did their best to match Cosby's intensity. The world premiere of David Alan Bunn's Live the Dream: A Soulful Fanfare sounded for the first three, brassy measures like something John Williams might have penned, but turned a funkier corner in the fourth to become a dynamic, dance-beat curtain-raiser. Conductor Leslie B. Dunner confidently led the new piece, dubbed the official overture of the museum and scored for orchestra, chorus and soprano soloist (bright-voiced Gabrielle Goodman).

The main item on the bill was Hannibal Lokumbe's ambitious, operatic panorama African Portraits, which was co-commissioned by the BSO more than a decade ago. From its chilling opening scene of an African village attacked by slave traders, the sprawling work encapsulates centuries of history in eclectic, yet remarkably persuasive form.

Dunner held everything together securely and enjoyed a dynamic response from the BSO and exceptionally disciplined Morgan singers. The many soloists acquitted themselves with distinction. Highlights included a gospel song delivered with stunning intensity by Jearlyn Steele, gritty blues played and sung in definitive form by veteran David "Honeyboy" Edwards, and sizzling jazz improv from a quartet headed by Lokumbe on trumpet.

Earlier, Jones brought his classic basso profundo voice to Thomas Henderson Kerr Jr.'s sobering work for narrator and chorus, Birmingham Sunday, which eulogizes the four children lost on one of the darkest chapters in American history - when "the choirs kept singing of freedom." Nathan Carter conducted with his usual authority.

Freelon gave a throbbing performance of her anthem One Child at a Time. And the Sandtown Children of Praise enlivened the hall, especially in Greg Pascuzzi's full-throttle arrangement of America the Beautiful, with the BSO and Morgan Choir matching them for enthusiasm.

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