Review: Atlanta Symphony’s “A King Celebration” turns 20

by Mark Gresham

The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra presented its annual “A King Celebration” last night, celebrating its 20th anniversary honoring the memory of Atlanta civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.

Traditionally held at the Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel on the Morehouse College campus, the event was moved to Symphony Hall due to anticipated size of audience wanting to hear superstar guest cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

Robert Spano and the orchestra opened the program with Beethoven’s “Overture to Fidelio,” a tightly constructed, spirited six-minute work which has come to represent the opera’s theme of heroism and eventual triumph of freedom and justice.

Immediately following, Kevin Johnson, choral director at Spelman College, took the podium to lead the combined Spelman and Morehouse College Glee Clubs in the traditional spiritual “Elijah Rock” in an a cappella arrangement by the late Moses Hogan, a performance that brought the audience to its feet.

Spano then returned to conduct “How Lovely is Thy Dwelling Place” from Johannes Brahms’ “A German Requiem.” Sung in English translation, the performance was credible, if somewhat blunt-edged Brahms.

Pulitzer Prize-winner Joseph Schwantner’s “New Morning for the World,” for narrator and orchestra, concluded the first half of the program. Based on King’s words, it was written in 1982 for David Effron and the Rochester Philharmonic, with Pittsburgh Pirates baseball great Willie Stargell as narrator.

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed narrated this performance. Reed did not try to imitate the oratorical powers of King. Instead, he let King’s words speak for themselves, understated in inflection, as if reading King’s words to family gathered at home. Although florid swirls and bold statements from percussion and brass threatened to emotionally upstage that approach early on, it was most effective in quieter, more contemplative music from the words “Now is the time…” onward.

After the intermission, a standing ovation took place as cellist Yo-Yo Ma took the stage for Antonin Dvořák’s “Cello Concerto.”


Ma has become iconic to contemporary audiences as representing “everything cello.” His relationship with his instrument is symbiotic. Certainly in the Dvořák, Ma’s splendid sense of rubato is informed by commitment to each musical phrase, insightfully revealing the composer’s passions as expressed in the score, rather than a mere grandstand for a performer’s ego. Ma observably listens intently to the orchestra as if playing with large chamber ensemble: whether the famous horn solo prior to the solo cello’s initial entrance, the brief measures of “Molto sostenuto” duet with flute in the first movement, the winds which open the “Adagio” second movement, or during 32 bars in the Finale, turning his eyes toward concertmaster David Coucheron when the solo first violin plays an octave above the section of seconds in effective duet with the solo cello.

The multiple ovations were tumultuous, but the program was hardly done. Ma made his way to the back of the cello section, from which he played the intimate “Sarabande” from J.S. Bach’s “Suite No. 5 in C minor” for solo unaccompanied cello.

Ma continued to play as part of the cello section as the final note of the “Sarabande” quietly transitioned into the orchestral introduction to Uzee Brown, Jr.’s arrangement of “We Shall Overcome,” which built up in slow contrapuntal crescendo to the entrance of the chorus singing the first verse.

Brown, an Atlanta-based opera singer, composer and alumnus of Morehouse who currently chairs its music department, created the arrangement especially for the Atlanta Symphony’s 1999 King Celebration concert.

What was unusual this year is the fact that the audience did not stand and join in singing “We Shall Overcome.” Was it the due to the concert being held in Symphony Hall rather than the King Chapel? Perhaps due to a larger percentage of audience that was not of African heritage than typical at King Chapel? Or perhaps had a number purchased their tickets less to celebrate King than to see Yo-Yo Ma?

A man to my immediate left, who had not been there before intermission, was trying to take pictures of Yo-Yo Ma during the Dvořák concerto, and I worried whether we would experience an “Alan Gilbert moment” that evening. A sincerely polite gentleman on my right, who did hear the first half, admitted it was “my chance to see Ma play,” and, although not an ASO subscriber, is an avid listener of classical music via NPR. I did get the impression that he is now more likely to attend a live ASO performance.

We can hope that perhaps some of those who showed up only to see Ma, but experienced the entire concert, took away with them something of the message and intent of “A King Celebration,” and that in such a coming together of the city’s often disparate communities we might sense, if only briefly, that our unalienable individual freedoms are, as King himself said, inextricably bound to the freedoms of others.

Speaking of public radio: “A King Celebration” was simulcast live on NPR stations nationwide, and selections will be rebroadcast nationwide on Monday, January 16, on American Public Media’s “Performance Today.” For local stations and broadcast times, see this list on the “Performance Today” website.