Concert Marks 50th Anniversary of MLK’s Death

Statue of Martin Luther King Jr. in Rocky Mount, North Carolina.

Statue of Martin Luther King Jr. in Rocky Mount, North Carolina.

On April 4, 1968, an assassin shot and killed civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., who was in Memphis, Tennessee, to speak in support of striking sanitation workers. The strike ended two weeks later when the city met the workers’ demands, and King’s legacy of nonviolent protest in pursuit of justice has continued to inspire generations of activists ever since.

In commemoration of the 50th anniversary of King’s death, the Raleigh Civic Chamber Orchestra — a program of NC State’s Department of Music — will perform an evening of music by African-American composers on Sunday, April 8, in Stewart Theatre inside Talley Student Union. The Dream Is Alive: Celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. will include the world premiere of Sinfonietta of Dreams, a piece specially commissioned for this concert and composed by New York-area composer Jeff Scott.

Peter Askim, director of orchestral studies at NC State and conductor of the Raleigh Civic Chamber Orchestra, says it’s his goal to design all the orchestra’s concerts around a theme that’s relevant to the community, both on campus and beyond it. “Because this year is the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s death, the concert is an opportunity to celebrate everything he worked to achieve,” Askim says.

When Askim searched for an African-American composer to create an original commission related to King’s work, he discovered the multitalented Scott, a composer, French horn player and adjunct professor at Montclair State University in New Jersey. Scott’s compositions cover a wide range of styles, from classical to pop to jazz, and his performance credits include touring with Luther Vandross and playing in the orchestra for The Lion King on Broadway.

Soon afterward, Askim learned about the groundbreaking research of NC State English professor Jason Miller, who discovered that nine months before King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech to a quarter of a million people at the March on Washington, he gave the first version of that speech before 1,800 listeners in a high school gymnasium in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. Miller also tracked down a mostly forgotten audio recording of the historic speech and arranged to have it digitally remastered. (You can listen to a portion of the speech online.)

“I told Jeff about Jason’s discovery of the Rocky Mount speech, and he decided to base his composition on that event,” Askim says. Sinfonietta of Dreams will incorporate audio from King’s speech in Rocky Mount alongside the orchestra, a mezzo soprano soloist and a gospel choir. The performance will also include footage from documentary film Origin of the Dream, about Miller’s research on the influence that poet Langston Hughes had on the rhetoric in King’s speeches.

The other pieces featured in the program are William Grant Still’s Mother and Child, a lyrical, romantic composition for solo violin and full orchestra, and Symphony op. 11, no. 2 by 18th-century composer Chevalier de Saint-Georges, a Caribbean American who was conductor of the leading symphony orchestra in Paris.

“I think this concert will have something in it for everybody,” Askim says. “We’re combining all these different genres of music with research and scholarship from other parts of the university to create a really diverse, inclusive, culturally relevant program for the evening.”

The program will begin at 3 p.m. when Miller will give a pre-concert talk about his research into King’s Rocky Mount speech and its relationship to the poetry of Langston Hughes. Miller’s talk will take place in room 3222 of Talley Student Union. The concert follows at 4 p.m. in Stewart Theatre, and afterward both Miller and Sinfonietta composer Scott will lead a post-concert discussion with the audience.

Tickets are available online at go.ncsu.edu/concerts ($10 general public; $8 NC State faculty and staff; $5 NC State students). You can also purchase tickets through Ticket Central (hours: 1-6 p.m., Monday-Friday), either by phone at 919-515-1100 or in person at the Ticket Central office in Thompson Hall. Children ages 12 and younger may attend for free, but tickets are required.

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