Los Angeles commemorates Dr. King with glorious music
Eric A. Gordon/PW

LOS ANGELES—A rich and generous program at the downtown Music Center’s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, home to the LA Opera, took place on the night of April 4 to remember “The Life and Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.”

Massed forces of orchestra and chorus, dancers and drummers, speakers and preachers, gathered to pay homage to King on the fiftieth anniversary of his death, and to send the audience forth with a message of continuing on the long road of struggle. At its height over 200 performers occupied the stage.

The centerpiece of the evening was the amazing Inner City Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles (ICYOLA), almost a hundred strong and most of them African-American, conducted by its founder, Charles Dickerson. To my chagrin I admit I had not been familiar with their work. It was founded in 2009 to provide a platform for young people to show their musical talents, and these were amply on display Wednesday night. He also conducted a community chorus of about 120 members, a multiracial group which included about thirty members of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles and a dozen or so from the Loyola High School Choir.

I was not surprised to see Dickerson’s half-page tribute in the printed program to Maestro José Antonio Abreu, who died on March 24. Abreu was the founding conductor of El Sistema, the pioneering musical education program in Venezuela that has created a pathway out of poverty and desperation for hundreds of thousands of children all throughout the country. His model has been adapted to many other places. Here in this city, the world-famous young conductor of the 100-year-old Los Angeles Philharmonic, Venezuelan Gustavo Dudamel, is a grateful protégé of Maestro Abreu.

The sheer logistics for this free concert were impressive—lining up all the elements of the evening, organizing the performers, securing sponsors, soliciting ads for the program, recruiting volunteers, promotion, and much more.

The “pre-concert” was also a concert but of a very special nature. As the audience gathered, from exactly 6:01 pm, the hour at which Dr. King was shot, until exactly 7:05 pm, the hour at which he was pronounced dead, the orchestra played adagio movements from larger symphonic works and short meditative pieces as a kind of somber death watch over the expiring Dr. King. Some of these featured soloists from the orchestra on piano (David Lee), clarinet (Jairus Montgomery), violin (Karah Innis) and oboe (Jessica Wilkins). All the while a spool of historic photos of MLK’s life projected over the stage, as the mostly Black audience members murmured recognition of certain scenes and faces.

The nine-person interracial Chikara Taiko Drummers from Centenary United Methodist Church marked the beginning of this precious hour and four minutes, and came on again at the end with a remarkably expert mini-concert of tight, elegant ensemble work. Their powerful, fluid display sounded like the drumming out of MLK’s death in all its detail—the rhythmic stomping of horse hooves, the electric clatter of telegraph wires, the heartbeat of America as the world received the awful news.

The orchestra reassembled on stage to play Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, which has become America’s standard memorial music. Almost unseen at first, small groups of men, women and children gathered off to the sides of the stage, and then it became apparent that here were the civil rights leaders on the Lorraine Motel balcony with MLK, and Coretta Scott King with her children and family on the other side. These were performers from the well respected Lula Washington Dance Theatre, re-enacting the April 4, 1968, events, the men lifting up the dying body of Rev. King and shouldering him offstage. One troubled little boy (the Kings had four children) stayed behind to pick up his father’s hat, placed it on his head and walked off with MLK’s briefcase. It was an unexpected, poignant piece of pantomime theatre, one that established the life and death of MLK as a modern passion story.

Remarks came from the Rev. Dr. Gwynne Guibord, founder and president of The Guibord Center—Religion Inside Out; Rev. William Smart, Jr., president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Southern California (SCLC was MLK’s primary organizational identification); and host Marc Brown, KABC Channel 7 News as emcee. Representatives of different faith traditions also spoke briefly on the example of Gandhi and Dr. King’s Six Principles of Nonviolence.

Smart made clear that King was not assassinated, but rather that he “sacrificed his life,” making him into something of a Christ-like presence amongst us. “He died still believing in America,” said Smart. Gracious thanks were offered to the event’s principal sponsors, Wells Fargo Bank, Pann’s Restaurant, AARP, SCLC, the Getty Foundation, and L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who appeared by video from Memphis along with other politicians such as U.S. Rep. Karen Bass and California State Senate candidate Maria Elena Durazo.

ICYOLA and the large chorus shone in five large works. Early on came the so-called Black National Anthem, J. Rosamond Johnson and James Johnson’s “Life Every Voice and Sing,” in an attractive, original arrangement by Roland Carter with a shimmering a cappella stanza, “God of our weary years, God of our silent tears, / Thou Who hast brought us thus far on the way; / Thou Who hast by Thy might, led us into the light, / Keep us forever in the path, we pray.” The audience rose to their feet for this anthem.

The choral excitement grew with film and TV actor Keith David narrating the introduction to a grand piece called I Have a Dream, set to selected texts from MLK’s 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom speech. This very substantial composition by Charles Dickerson began quietly with the crisp snap of a snare drum, suggesting right away the famous quote from Rev. King’s February 4, 1968, sermon “The Drum Major Instinct,” from the pulpit of  Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church two months to the day before he would die. “Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice,” King preached, anticipating what people might say at his funeral. “Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.”

The work, maybe about twenty minutes in length, fits into that body of “civic” cantatas America is famous for—works by Randall Thompson, Earl Robinson, Elie Siegmeister, Marc Blitzstein and others—echoing patriotic themes in our national history while also calling upon citizens of the present to correct the missteps and failures of the past. Strains of “My Country, ’Tis of Thee” filtered in toward the end before the MLK passage about his dream of little children black and white holding hands in the future on the road to “Freedomland.” It is truly a thrilling work, which I hope Mr. Dickerson is not shy about promoting to other choruses. It deserves to be widely appreciated.

No separating the music from the death

Not long afterward came The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed, a new composition for male singers by the 29-year-old African-American composer Joel Thompson, who was introduced from the audience. This performance was the West Coast premiere of the orchestrated setting. Thompson obviously was inspired by the Seven Last Words of Christ (not literally “words” but utterances, such as “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do”). Those texts by and about Jesus’s passion on the cross have been set by numerous composers; perhaps Franz Joseph Haydn’s oratorio is the best known.

In Unarmed, Thompson focuses on seven African-American young men who have been shot either by police or vigilantes, and captures in music the last words they spoke. The names and photos of these seven were projected on the screen above the chorus, with their birth and death dates and their words.

Kenneth Chamberlain: “Officers, why do you have your guns out? Why?”

Trayvon Martin: “What are you following me for?”

Amadou Diallo: “”Mom, I’m going to college? Mom, I’m going.” (This section featured the phenomenal voice of baritone Donald Perry.)

Michael Brown: “I don’t have a gun! Stop shooting!”

Oscar Julius Grant III: “You shot me!”

John Crawford III: “It’s not real.”

Eric Garner: “”I can’t breathe.”

Each of the seven sections had a distinct character and mood. Chamberlain’s “Why?” reverberates through the house as if to challenge every one of us to ask why this continues to happen in America. Diallo’s college aspirations are halted by a bullet. He’s not going to college after all; heartbreakingly, he’s just…going. When Michael Brown says “Stop shooting!” the word “Stop” is repeated over and over again, like a hailstorm of bullets that ended his life. Grant’s music suggests the beep of a hospital heart monitor after the attempt to save him from his unprovoked Fruitvale Station police attack. Crawford’s “It’s not real” music is dreamy and romantic, almost like the make-believe of a Hollywood movie. Garner’s last breaths appear ever more pathetically wheezing in the brass section, the chorus slowly dying out.

Though not long, only fourteen minutes or so, The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed is intentionally a deeply unsettling piece of music. I have never experienced an audience responding the way this one did. There was some scattered applause (as there was also after Donald Perry’s Diallo solo), but it was not sustained. Most people felt, I am sure, as I did: Stunned, overwhelmed with emotion, with sorrow, with frustration and anger, and in no mental condition to allow a burst of applause to dissipate our honest mourning for these senselessly snuffed-out lives. We would have been embarrassed, almost as though we were cheering the killers and the killings. There was no separating the music from the death. Onstage the conductor himself was clearly distraught and did not know which way to turn: He abandoned the formalities of a bow, the appreciative wave to the players in the orchestra and the singers in the chorus, the summoning of the composer to the stage. As if the Martin Luther King commemoration were not mourning enough—but that murder was fifty years ago—these ones just happened, and dammit, another cantata could be written every single week since. Our communal grief was awkward and palpable.

A website devoted to this composition with links to live performances of it can be accessed here.

Eric A. Gordon/PW


The orchestra and chorus were not done yet, however; in any case, Unarmed would have been too terrible a note to end on. Randall Thompson’s one-word Alleluia followed Rev. Cecil “Chip” Murray’s “Recommittal of the Lives of Martin King and Other Victims of Gun Violence.” The chorus repeats that one word over and over, hypnotically, perhaps so often as to convince the singer and the listener that there is something indeed to feel praiseful about—until the final Amen. But instead of the Latinate Al-le-lu-ia, in this performance the conductor had the singers revert to the original Hebrew aspirated Hal-le-lu-jah, which would also be more authentic to the Black church tradition. I found this most invigorating in such a gentle, comforting piece.

At the end, the orchestra and chorus came in again with a stirring rendition, arranged by Peter J. Wilhousky, of Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Big bursts of orchestral color shone out from the brasses in this religio-patriotic chestnut, but the song slowed down and the orchestra disappeared at the words, “As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free!” No wonder this was a popular song for the courageous men full of passion for the Union Army cause during the Civil War. JFK, Martin, RFK, Malcolm, Trayvon, Amadou, Newtown, Connecticut, The Pulse in Orlando, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida…. How many must die? How many more in this endless nightmare?

In his “Recommittal” Rev. Murray may have suggested a way to answer those questions. “The best way to make your dreams come true,” he charged us, “is to wake up.”


Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon, People’s World Cultural Editor, wrote a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein and co-authored composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. He has translated all nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, available from International Publishers NY.