The dreams of inclusiveness and equality envisioned by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. will find their ultimate musical fulfillment when works by African-American composers are programmed all season long, and when ensembles of well-diversified personnel regularly perform for well-diversified audiences. Meanwhile, we have to be content with an annual concert commemorating King's legacy.
On Tuesday night, Maryland's 22nd such concert, presented by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the Maryland Commission on African American History and Culture, offered plenty of talent onstage. BSO players sat side by side with members of the Soulful Symphony to explore portions of large-scale pieces from the past by Duke Ellington and William Grant Still, and one from the present by James Lee III, a recent addition to the Morgan State faculty.
The Morgan State University Choir was on hand, too, to honor not only King, but also one of Baltimore's most inspiring musical forces, the man responsible for that choir's world-class status, the late Nathan Carter. In opening remarks, Mayor Sheila Dixon described Carter as "a gift of God who allowed young people to reach their potential." (The mayor also spoke about the need to save less fortunate youths being claimed by violence and neglect in this city.)
Last week, Joseph Young, recipient of the first BSO-Peabody Conducting Fellowship, got a brief opportunity to demonstrate his potential when, in a generous gesture, BSO Music Director Marin Alsop gave him the podium to lead the orchestra in a Mozart piece. Here, with the all-orchestral first half of the program to himself, Young addressed an eclectic mix of repertoire confidently and stylishly. (One work was jettisoned to make room for words from Dixon and Gov. Martin O'Malley.)
Young had the Giggling Rapids passage from Ellington's The River flowing vividly. And the conductor tapped into the rich, lyrical vein of the Aspiration movement from Still's Afro-American Symphony, coaxing a dynamic, generally smooth response from the players. This once-celebrated 1931 symphony seems to be severely undervalued today; this small taste was a welcome reminder of its communicative, unpretentious quality.
Lee's Beyond Rivers of Vision was premiered by the National Symphony Orchestra in 2006. Steeped in rather obscure biblical references, and alive with rhythmic and harmonic tension, the work made a compelling impression then. So did the single movement played here, Hiddekel: Third from Life. The performance could have been tighter, but the music's volatility came through.
James P. Johnson's snappy Victory Stride got a good workout, though Young could have put a more unbridled thrust into the closing measures.
The focus of attention then shifted to the choir, now directed by Eric Conway, and the memory of Carter - "a giant who left awesome footprints," said Soulful Symphony founding artistic director Darin Atwater. Several of Carter's dynamic arrangements of sacred songs were featured, showcasing the group's collective and individual assets.
"If I Can Help Somebody" lit up the place with the help of a stratosphere-scraping solo by Thomas Allen, whose advanced falsetto had a remarkably warm, gleaming timbre. He was just as soaring and goose-bump-stirring in "Great Is Thy Faithfulness." Shana Powell, who is Miss Maryland 2007 as well as a Morgan student, brought a rich soprano to "Day and Night Praise."
Throughout, the choir's singing reflected Conway's sure guidance, his ear for clarity, balance and nuance. He also shaped the orchestra's contributions sensitively.
At the end of the concert, the total expressive force unleashed from the stage in Richard Smallwood's infectious gospel hit "Total Praise" couldn't have been much more uplifting.