Just by being what it is, any Martin Luther King Day event has an inspirational quality. But Sunday night’s 20th annual Nashville Symphony Orchestra “Let Freedom Sing” celebration at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center’s Laura Turner Hall was far more than a poignant gathering and feel-good event.
It also offered powerful testimonies and compelling stories from those who not only witnessed history, but were direct participants in the momentumental transformation of American society caused by the Civil Rights Movement.
Part of that was due to the contributions of Andrea Blackman, who was announced before the show as the 2013 winner of the Edwina Hefner Community Leadership Award. This is given to a community member whose work exemplifies Dr. King’s legacy. Blackman has been coordinating the Nashville Public Library’s acclaimed Civil Rights Room and Collection since 2003.
Sunday’s program included excerpts of oral history and accounts of demonstrations, confrontations, and strategies, as well as photographs and visual accounts, that are part of Blackman’s massive collection. The voices of such names as Ola G. Hudson, Mrs. Alice Smith Perry, Dr. Matthew Kennedy, Salynn McCollum and other Freedom Riders, sit-in demonstrators and others punctuated the various songs, as well as often gut-wrenching scenes that spotlighted ugly signs, overt displays of hatred, and other items from the city’s past.
Yet, it was also made clear Nashville largely avoided the brutality and violence that plagued other areas. Indeed, Dr. King praised the Civil Rights and political leadership in the Nashville Black community and said it was a model for the nation. He also hailed the leadership and insight provided by students and faculty at Fisk University, Tennessee State University (then Tennessee A&I), American Baptist and Meharry Medical College.
This material was interspersed within a host of tremendous vocal and instrumental performances. “Let Freedom Sing” was divided into two presentations. The first featured the Nashville Symphony doing five numbers, among them the full version of J. Rosamond Johnson’s “Negro National Anthem, aka “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” and George Gershwin’s “Oh Lord, I’m On My Way,” from Porgy and Bess.
That set’s highlight came via two masterful violin contributions delivered by 16-year-old virtuoso Randall Goosby. Playing without excessive theatrics or flash, Goosby still demonstrated remarkable dexterity and instrumental skill in his performances on Jules Massenet’s Mediation from Thais, a slower, reflective piece, and Fritz Kreisler’s “Liebesfreud.” Goosby’s exquisite technique and polished, dynamic presentation earned him two standing ovations.
The second set included both elaborate vocal and symphony numbers, and simpler, yet equally effective performances from various special guests. The Fisk Jubilee Singers did a wonderful version of “Hold On!,” with tenor vocalist Cameron Clark doing a first-rate lead. The MTSU Steel Drum Ensemble brought some Caribbean percussive seasoning to “Variations on “Ode to Joy.”
The symphony’s best second set moments came during their rendition of Duke Ellington’s sonorous “The River.” Ron Collier’s arrangement melded strings and horns into an animated, piercing mode one moment, then a cohesive, buttressing one the next.
Other special guests included the Celebration Youth Chorus and Celebration Chorus. Kelly Corcoran skillfully navigated the Orchestra and massed voices through the program with ease, while doubling as narrator and sometimes providing the transition pieces between music and verbal accounts.
The evening closed as it should, with performers and crowd doing “We Shall Overcome,” accompanied with verve by the Orchestra. As with “Lift Every Voice,” the complete tune (it’s doubtful most people know it has five full stanzas and a second chorus totally different from the well known main one) was performed.
It put a stirring cap on a night where memories did more than just make people feel good about the past; it urged them to continue the fight in order to ensure a brighter and better future.