Fifty years to the very day after Martin Luther King Jr. led the massive 1963 civil rights March on Washington, the Boston Landmarks Orchestra will celebrate what those of us of a certain age remember: that vivid moment when King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. A year later Congress passed, and Lyndon Baines Johnson signed, the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Then, in the midst of ugly reaction against civil rights, and with the Vietnam War in the background, King was assassinated during those heady and turbulent times. The Boston Landmarks Orchestra closes its summer season at the Hatch Shell with a commemoration that really befits the anniversary. BLO’s Christopher Wilkins tells us why we should be on the Esplanade on Wednesday at 7:00.
I want to say right off that we are fortunate and grateful to have Governor Patrick’s participation as narrator for the evening. Our concert is a celebration of the “I Have a Dream” speech and its content, including works that address themes of individual rights, tolerance and social justice. These principles inspired the March on Washington and the “I Have a Dream” speech. The lines Governor Patrick will deliver are the words of Lincoln on the one hand, and the novelist Alan Paton on the other, dealing with exactly these themes.
The date is especially significant because the “I Have a Dream” speech itself was given in the year of the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and of the Battle at Gettysburg. In just the second sentence of the speech, King finds a way to refer to both: “Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation.” King’s language echoes the Gettysburg Address without mentioning Lincoln’s name. This is typical. The speech establishes a place in American history for the freedom marchers by resonating with famous chapters in the story of American democracy.
Our program is organized in such a way as to allow some of the central characters of the speech to step onto our stage: King, Lincoln, the Founding Fathers, the poets and composers quoted in the speech, and—just as important as all of these—the bards who created the musical legacy we call the spirituals, or the Negro spirituals. These sacred songs, created during the era of slavery and passed down through oral tradition, were especially important to King. They have long since become a essential parts of America’s musical identity.
The opening work on the program is the Battle Hymn of the Republic. This famous song or hymn—it’s a march really—provided Dr. King with the last words he spoke in public. In his speech before the striking sanitation workers in Memphis, he closed with the phrase, “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” Following the Battle Hymn, the Landmarks Orchestra and the One City Choir will perform three spirituals in settings by the English composer Michael Tippett drawn from his oratorio A Child of our Time. They serve to break the tension of Tippett’s narrative describing an incident leading to the Nazi pogrom known as Kristallnacht. I believe that Tippett used the spirituals not only because he was so moved by them, but also because they were neither European nor 20th century. They lend his work a universality and timelessness.
The remarkable New England Spiritual Ensemble joins us for the spirituals, and throughout the first half of the concert. We also are pleased to have the outstanding Back Bay Chorale performing with us. The choral preparation for all forces is under the direction of their Music Director, Scott Allen Jarrett. Once again this season, we have assembled a large symphonic chorus we call the Boston Landmarks One City Choir, made up of volunteer singers from every corner of the city, and many surrounding communities.
Our concert also has something of an international flavor. The ideas King expressed so beautifully in the “I Have a Dream” speech were intended for a specific audience and a specific purpose. But Dr. King also recognized that the March on Washington was part of an “eternal struggle” to defend human rights for all people throughout history. In various ways in the course of the speech, he declares that his dream is for all humanity.
A substantial portion of our program involves a performance of Kurt Weill’s musical adaptation of Alan Paton’s novel, Cry the Beloved Country (called Lost in the Stars when it went to Broadway). It is a South African story, but Weill wrote it for Broadway and considered the story especially fitting for the American stage. Because of its clear, eloquent and elevated language on themes of civil rights, equal protection, and fairness of economic opportunity, it is read throughout the world, including in American schools today.
I am told that Dr. King and Duke Ellington were friends, and Ellington composed his last major work not long after King’s assassination. Three Black Kings was created for the Alvin Ailey Dance Company, and the last movement of it is called Martin Luther King. A terrific saxophonist, André Ward, is joining us in that work. Ward is a gifted fellow. He also serves as an elementary and middle school principal in the Boston Public Schools, in West Roxbury.
And as I say, we’re completely blessed to have Governor Patrick with us for this concert. I know he’s looking forward to the occasion. He has collaborated with the Boston Landmarks Orchestra before, including at Fenway Park in 2010. I think to have his voice, his personality and musicality — I love the way he narrates with orchestra — and his personal connection to these themes, will make a great impact.
We will conclude with Governor Patrick narrating Aaron Copland’s Lincoln Portrait. King was at the Lincoln Memorial to deliver his speech, of course, and he alludes to Lincoln in the speech. Lincoln also plays a prominent role in Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country. For the Lincoln Portrait, we will project some spectacular photographs from the Civil War era, mostly from the Mathew Brady studio. These images are brilliantly choreographed to Copland’s music by James Westwater, and it all concludes with an image of King at the Lincoln Memorial.
And the governor will be easy to coach in this piece because not insignificantly, he is the son of an important musician. The Governor’s father, saxophonist and composer Pat Patrick, played with Coltrane and Monk, and was a leading member of a progressive jazz group led by Sun Ra in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. One of Pat Patrick’s most frequent collaborators was the great Nigerian drummer Babatunde Olatunji, who joined Dr. King for the March on Washington in 1963. Maybe three years ago there was a ceremony at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, when Governor Patrick gifted his father’s legacy to the school – I gather it is quite a treasure trove of recordings, photographs, letters, manuscripts and so forth.
But in Hoiby’s “I Have a Dream,” King’s speech will not actually be read. Rather, what you will hear is a musical setting of the last half of the speech, from the moment Dr. King begins with “I have a dream”… to the end. That’s where King appears to be improvising his lines; he doesn’t seem to be actually looking at his written copy of the speech anymore.
It’s almost word for word. Hoiby has adjusted a few things to make it fit better within his musical setting, but very little. When he makes reference to “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” Hoiby cleverly alludes to the song without a great deal of direct quotation. He manages to capture the texture and tone of the speech mainly. There’s both a rhetorical grandeur and a soulful quality reminiscent of the spirituals. It’s clever without being self-consciously so, it’s just very musical. Lee Hoiby was a wonderful composer, principally of vocal music, and I find this setting to be deeply moving, and will be sung by the wonderful baritone Philip Lima.
And we have something else very interesting. We approached the King estate about creating an American Sign Language interpretation of the speech. And they’ve agreed to that — in fact they’re excited about it. A young deaf artist by the name of Misha Blood will perform an interpretation of the speech created by Richard Bailey. It will be captured live that night on video. As during the concert, we will have the world premiere of the first-ever officially sanctioned ASL interpretation of “I Have a Dream.”