America, like every nation, has both its sordid history and its heroes. In celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, the Boston Children’s Chorus presented a tribute concert on January 16 in Jordan Hall with a spirit of indefatigable optimism and hope. The slick, well-choreographed program was mixed with student recitations on the subjects of love, justice, empowerment, and Dr. King’s vision of a “Beloved Community,” the theme of the evening’s performance. The show was truly given life, however, not by any words but by the talent and presence of the singers, director Anthony Trecek-King, and guest singer Melinda Doolittle.
The songs were a mix of spiritual, gospel, and pop arrangements along with contemporary choral pieces, performed mainly by the teenage Premier Choir in their snappy red jackets. Occasional accompaniment was tastefully provided by a small back-up band of piano, synthesizer, percussion, guitar, bass, and brass. The program was presented in a continuous design, with singers jiving their way onto the stage at the beginnings of numbers, lights going up and down on cue, and speeches, video clips, and banter in the interludes. When in front of his chorus, Trecek-King set an exuberant tone with his loose-limbed, energetic conducting. The few a capella songs he led, such as the traditional spiritual “In His Care-O,” were strong and showcased a tight and well-balanced ensemble (in which the obligatorily small bass section made a strong showing). The choir also acquitted themselves very respectfully with the intervallic twists and new-agey harmonies of Nathan Jones’s “I Would Live In Your Love.”
Gospel/soul singer Doolittle of “American Idol” fame was an irrepressible stage presence, with a booming, gutsy voice and a bright-white smile. Headlining “Rock of Ages & I Go to the Rock” and “We Will Find A Way,” she belted her way around the circle of gently bopping singers, head thrown back, platform shoes stomping, with a wide grin that couldn’t help but leap to the faces of the audience. True pleasure came from watching her communicate personally with every one of the front row of singers in turn, and their responding smiles and nods as they sang back to her—a literal example of community created within performance. It was also lovely to watch the subtle ways in which the young singers loosened up in response to her. Obviously encouraged to improvise physical movements as they backed her up, some singers seemed more naturally ebullient than others; in the end, however, each seemed to achieve his or her unique style, some extroverted, some with quiet self-possession.
The program was varied enough to sustain interest. “Horizons,” an unusual composition by Peter Lewis Van Dijk, was a complex, stylized lament on the beginnings of the African slave trade. It featured surround-sound (courtesy of the younger Concert Choir who filled the aisles of the house), bird- and animal-like sound effects, and intricate-sounding chants and cross rhythms. The dark ending (“And they came across the waters:/ Gods in galleons, bearing bows of steel,/ Then they killed us on the far horizon…”) was reinforced with a burst of red from the lighting booth. After the nod to suffering, however, the overwhelming majority of the pieces were unabashedly uplifting. Guest fiddler Tessa Lark was featured in a stomping, hair-swinging bluegrass rendition of “I’ll Fly Away,” which followed a video clip of King’s famous “Mountaintop” speech. The Young Men’s Ensemble, despite a somewhat awkward group pose, delivered a smooth and rich rendition of “Swing Down Chariot” with very fine solos from two of its members.
Espousing peace, love, cooperation, and acceptance is simple; living one’s life in accordance with Dr. King’s vision is the hard part. To those who harbor a secret hope that music can indeed save the world, it is satisfying to see the Boston Children’s Chorus using music as a starting point for communication, for bringing people together in the creation of something beautiful and good.
Zoe Kemmerling is a recent graduate of the Boston Conservatory and a freelance violist, Baroque violinist, writer, and string instructor.