With an elaborate presentation of music, words, and imagery at the DCR Hatch Shell on the Esplanade last night, the Boston Landmarks Orchestra commemorated the 50th-anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. The performance, billed as a major civic event, was sponsored by Eastern Bank and the Arbella Insurance Foundation, and Governor Deval Patrick was featured as a guest narrator. During the five decades which have passed since the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,” King has been thoroughly assimilated into the mainstream. Last night’s event cast his most famous words as a universal plea for freedom and equality, ignoring the speech’s scathing and specific passages heavy in economic metaphor. Given the concert’s banking industry underwriting, no one would really expect a musical setting of “America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check that has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’ ” But some acknowledgment of the biting oratory preceding the “I have a Dream” conclusion was missed.
Despite the narrow excerpt from the text, the program was very successful in illustrating the broad lineage of King’s remarks, including the influences of Abraham Lincoln and of traditional Negro spirituals. The musical offerings were almost overwhelmingly generous—ranging from Battle Hymn of the Republic, to Michael Tippett, to Kurt Weill, to Duke Ellington, to Lee Hoiby, to Aaron Copland.
The Battle Hymn, written during the Civil War, gave a nice feature to the combined voices of the One City Choir the New England Spiritual Ensemble, and the Back Bay Chorale, and offered the orchestra’s fine brass section a place to shine in the rousing climax of the march. This was followed by three spirituals from Michael Tippett’s A Child of Our Time, which featured the stunning soprano Michelle Johnson. After the concert, it was no surprise to discover that she was the 2011 Grand Prize Winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions—a fact oddly omitted from her printed bio. We were lucky enough to hear her in the Tippett, and luckier still to hear her again in the following piece, a concert presentation of Kurt Weill’s opera Cry, the Beloved Country (also known as Lost in the Stars).
This work strayed a bit from the Martin Luther King theme, although it referenced Lincoln as a connecting thread. Set in Johannesburg of the 1940s and based on the novel by Alan Paton, it tells the story of a murder and its consequences in the South African community. In this excerpted version, the plot was nearly indecipherable, but the musical performance was strong. Johnson especially impressed with her rapid patter in the burlesque number “Who’ll Buy” (about selling vegetables—really), and in the touching song “Trouble Man” where she was supported by the BLO’s uncredited harpist. In instrumental sections, Patrick read passages of the original novel over the music.
After intermission, alto saxophonist André Ward performed “Martin Luther King” from Ellington’s Three Black Kings. This was followed by Hoiby’s setting of the famous portion of the “dream” speech. Baritone Philip Lima brought a convincing gravitas to the solo role of King, and the setting was quite effective and stirring, even if the musical language and orchestrational mechanics didn’t show Hoiby to have a particularly distinct musical style.
Copland’s Lincoln Portrait, a fixture of this kind of event, concluded the program, but not without some unique touches. The BLO brought in James Westwater and Nicholas Bardonnay, who bill themselves as “photochoreographers,” to provide an elaborately projected photo collage alongside the music. Using Civil War photographs and a number of lesser-known portraits of Lincoln, the display was reminiscent of a Ken Burns documentary, but proved to have a serious sensitivity to the musical timing and message. The Lincoln Portrait’s obligatory narration was provided by Patrick, who doesn’t have an ideal radio voice, but nonetheless carried the recitation without stiffness or affectation.
Led by Christopher Wilkins, the BLO sounded like a fine group and this was a thoughtful presentation. The orchestra also provided American Sign Language translations of the remarks throughout the evening, and even ASL interpretations of the music—an interesting display for all.