Review: Alabama Symphony program honors memory of civil rights leaders King and Shuttlesworth

by Mark Gresham

Like many other institutions have done over the past few days, the Alabama Symphony Orchestra presented its annual tribute to civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. yesterday at Jamison Concert Hall on the University of Alabama-Birmingham Campus. The orchestra’s assistant conductor, Fawzi Haimor, led the assembled forces in the modest-length, intermissionless program.

The concert opened with the heralding notes of “An American Fanfare” by Adolphus Hailstork, a four-and-a-half minute Coplandesque showpiece for brass and percussion, written in 1985.

Birmingham Mayor William A. Bell stepped up to narrate “Let Freedom Ring” by Alexander Miller, a setting of MLK’s “I Have A Dream” speech. Its essence is what one might call a familiar and serious “civic-minded” musical style which audiences might easily associate with patriotic holidays.

Jonathan Bailey Holland’s “House of Dreams” followed. It was written in 1997 for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in memory of developer James Rouse, a legendary urban visionary whose non-profit Enterprise Foundation was founded to build affordable housing for the poor. The work is a celebratory rather than somber memorial, with often dense, sweeping sonic gestures impelling it forward.

The combined choirs of the Alabama School of Fine Arts and Jacksonville State University joined the orchestra to perform “PraiseMaker” by Atlanta-based composer Alvin Singleton, with a text by Susan Kouguell, a poet with whom he had collaborated previously. Commissioned for the 125th anniversary of the Cincinnati May Festival in 1998, where it was premiered by James Conlon and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Singleton and Kouguell explicitly went about creating it as a “universal, secular and celebratory” work honoring the past and collective memory, inspired by the traditional African griots—oral historians and celebrants also known as “praise singers.”

Ranging from high school through college ages, the youthful singers were well-prepared and focused in pitch. Their collective sound more translucent than a chorus of older singers, nevertheless that worked very well with Singleton’s mostly sparse and hauntingly ethereal orchestration, punctuated at points by pitched percussion and occasionally interrupted by flustered figures in brass and woodwinds.

The JSU chorus then delivered a joyful a cappella performance of the spiritual, “Ride On King Jesus,” as arranged by Edward Boatner.

The evening’s only work not by a 20th or 21st-century composer, Beethoven’s “Leonore Overture No. 3” closed the concert. Like the “Fidelio Overture” which ultimately took its place at the beginning of Fidelio, Beethoven’s sole opera, the “Leonore No. 3” has become iconic in its use in themed concerts to represent the struggle for freedom and justice, while falling safely within the canon of standard symphonic repertoire.

In addition to serving as a tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr., this year’s concert also honored the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, pastor of Birmingham’s Bethel Baptist Church from 1953 to 1961 and one of King’s notable compatriots, who died late last year. A poignant, heartfelt speech in the middle of the concert, followed by a moment of silence, commemorated Shuttlesworth’s friendship with King and his own significant leadership of the civil rights movement in Birmingham. □