St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, St. Louis Symphony Chorus and St. Louis Symphony IN UNISON Chorus collaborated in a tribute concert to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Monday, Jan. 16 at Powell Hall.
“This indeed is a special night for the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra because it involves almost all of our beloved community, members of both choruses, and our orchestra,” said Kevin McBeth, IN UNISON Chorus director.
“Freedom’s Plow," originally composed by Rollo Dilworth, began the evening on a high note. Dilworth told The St. Louis American in a 2009 interview it is “a song of freedom, hope, and inspiration that celebrates the contributions of African Americans to the American musical landscape.”
The piece is inspired by the closing 14 lines of Langston Hughes’ poem of the same title, which pays respect to the spiritual “Keep Your Hand on the Plow.”
Alto soloist Patricia Brown joined the choruses in the moving selection dedicated to Dr. King.
The piece honored the legacy of Dr. King, who dedicated his adult life to creating a more equitable, loving and unified society, especially for Black and brown communities.
Michael Abels, an Emmy-nominated composer whose scores include the Jordan Peele films “Get Out” and “Us,” crafted the work “Outburst,” which the symphony and choruses performed. A slapping sound is heard in the arrangement, signifying hand clapping in the Black church.
Throughout the evening McBeth and SLSO’s Music Director Stéphane Denève gracefully hosted the evening of tribute and music.
“What a joy and a great honor it is to be here with you all to celebrate the legacy of MLK through music,” Denève said.
Denève shared that Dr. King often quoted songs in his speeches, which led the orchestra into “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
“I Dream a World.” inspired by the Langston Hughes poem, had a major influence on King’s famous “I Have A Dream,” speech, and SLSO performed its rendition of the historic work.
Classical pianist Florence Price wrote “Adoration” in reference to her having what she called “two handicaps” - her race and her sex. Dr. King too faced adversity and judgment for the color of his skin, while rising as one of the most influential changemakers of the civil rights movements.
St. Louis composer Adam Maness’ “What We Need” fromDivides That Bindwas also part of the concert.
According to Maness, Divides That Bind captures his thoughts and feelings around the 2014 killing of Black teenager Michael Brown Jr., by former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson.
The piece also includes “What We Need,” which was written in response to Dr. King’s iconic acceptance speech for winning the Nobel Peace Prize.
Father and son, Stanley Johnson and Alexandar Johnson, served as narrators, and guided guests through the narrative.
“Epitaph for a Man Who Dreamed” models King’s nobility, while also having listeners to imagine themselves around a gravesite, the Johnsons explained.
Rather than somber, it evoked a celebration of life feeling where mourners instead would sing, rejoice, and reflect on how to become an impactful leader like King.
“Precious Lord, Take My Hand” reminded everyone again of King’s gospel roots, while the finale of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” emphasized how far Black people have come and the work needed to continue to progress.