Bel Canto’s inspiring tribute to Martin Luther King

Milwaukee's Bel Canto Chorus and the chorus of Holy Redeemer Church mix music and readings in an MLK tribute.

By - Jan 21st, 2013 09:58 am

Reginald K. Gee’s “Inspiration II” was on display at the Bel Canto/Holy Redeemer Martin Luther King concert Sunday. Image courtesy of David Barnett Gallery.

An undeniable feeling of electricity charged the air at the Holy Redeemer Institutional Church of God in Christ prior to The Dream Lives On: a Tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., featuring the Bel Canto Chorus, the Milwaukee Chamber Orchestra, and the choir and orchestra of the Holy Redeemer Church. The Bel Canto’s Richard Hynson led the combined forces at the Sunday concert. They gave the audience an extraordinary gift in the excellent selection of words and music and the stunning performances by all involved.

Readings by and about King were interspersed with the music, which included some surprising but emotionally fitting selections. Bishop Sedgwick Daniels, pastor of Holy Redeemer Church, John Daniels III, and County Executive Chris Abele gave voice to the words of King, Robert Kennedy and Harris Wofford, who was President Kennedy’s Special Assistant on Civil Rights.


Richard Hynson, Bel Canto Chorus music director.

The name Irving Fine is not well know today, and more’s the pity. While his output was not particularly extensive– Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians lists roughly two dozen works– his work is strong and in some cases of higher quality than some better-known names. Hynson chose Fine’s Notturno for strings and harp as interludes to readings from King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Fine’s plangent musical language provided excellent emotional counterpoint to King’s words, read by Bishop Daniels. For me, this was the absolute highlight to the program.

An equally unexpected juxtaposition followed John Daniels III’s reading from Harris Wofford’s “This Was His Last Great March”: Giacomo Puccini’s “Chrysanthemums,” which Puccini composed in a single sitting after hearing of the death of a friend. While Puccini’s language is far more traditional than that of Fine, the effect was the same, and the music fit perfectly with Wofford’s words.

Far more conventional was the decision to follow Chris Abele’s reading, from Robert Kennedy’s speech announcing King’s assassination, with a pair of gospel numbers. The first, “I Open my Mouth to the Lord,” was a powerful, defiant statement of faith performed unaccompanied. The second, the upbeat, celebratory “I Walk in the Light,” by Holy Redeemer music director Valerie Daniels Carter, featured the voice of Bishop Daniels. Jerome Pitchford, the assistant music director for Holy Redeemer Church, led the combined choirs.

Hynson distributed three movements from Robert Ray’s Gospel Mass among the readings. Hynson and the performers — especially soloists, Karen Bell, Penny Laferriere, Alesia Miller and Tony Neal — did an excellent job in bringing this popular score to life. The concert concluded with M. Roger Holland’s “Lord, Make Me an Instrument,” a lovely gospel number and a fitting final tribute to a peaceful man of faith.

Next Up for the Bel Canto: Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil, March 10.

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