MLK Celebrate

Severance Hall
January 14 – Sunday at 7:00 p.m.
Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Concert

The Cleveland Orchestra celebrates the dreams of Martin Luther King Jr. 

by Carol Jacobs

The Cleveland Orchestra demonstrated early its commitment to honoring this country’s greatest civil rights leader.  Four days after the April 4, 1968, assassination of Martin Luther King, The Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell performed the “Allegretto” movement from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 as a memorial tribute to the life of Dr. King.

Toward the end of the next decade, The Cleveland Orchestra played a key role in the evolution of a more formal and institutionalized recognition of Dr. King’s life.  The Orchestra’s first Martin Luther King Jr. Concert took place in January 1980.  In the program book of that first concert, Dr. Donald G. Jacobs, executive director of the Greater Cleveland Interchurch Council, applauded The Cleveland Orchestra “for taking seriously the need for the whole community to recognize the vital role the life and death of Dr. King continues to play in the struggle for racial justice and human dignity.”

The Martin Luther King Jr. Concert quickly became an annual event both as a tribute to Dr. King and as an expression of commitment to the struggle for racial justice and human dignity.  From 1980 to 1986, The Cleveland Orchestra and the Interchurch Council collaborated in presenting these Severance Hall concerts.  In January 1986, the Jewish Community Federation and the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland joined the Interchurch Council and the Musical Arts Association in sponsoring the event.  That same year, the federal government officially designated the third Monday in January as a public holiday celebrating the life and work of Dr. King.

In 1986, the City of Cleveland became directly involved in presenting these concerts at the request of Cleveland City Council President George Forbes and Mayor George Voinovich.

From 1987 to 1997, the annual King concert took place at Cory United Methodist Church, the site of Dr. King’s last speech in Cleveland.  The concert was held at Severance Hall in 1998 and again in 2000 as part of the re-opening festivities following the Hall’s restoration.  Severance Hall has continued to host the concert since then.

Many distinguished performing artists have participated in these concerts, including Andrew Davis, Christoph von Dohnányi, Leslie Dunner, Raymond Harvey, Isaiah Jackson, Kay George Roberts, André Raphel Smith, Thomas Wilkins, Florence Quivar, Daisy New­man, Cissy Houston, Janet Alcorn, Barbara Conrad, John Cheek, Natalie Hinderas, William Warfield, Leon Bibb, and John Fleming.  Music Director Franz Welser-Möst first conducted the Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Concert in 2003, and also conducted it in 2004, 2006, and 2009.

Beginning with the 1989 concert, volunteers from the greater Cleveland area were organized by Alvin Parris into a Community Gospel Choir, now called the Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Chorus.  In the past decade, William Henry Caldwell has taken on the role of chorus director.  Other choral participants have included the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus, Prestonian Choral Ensemble, Morgan State University Choir, Shaw High School Concert Choir, Everett Moore Singers, and the Central State University Chorus.

An important facet of these programs has been the presentation of contemporary American works, including those of Donald Erb, William Grant Still, Ulysses Kay, Carman Moore, Alvin Parris, Joseph Schwantner, Hale Smith, Undine Smith Moore, George Walker, and Lanny Wolfe.  The singing of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” with audience participation, has been a tradition since the 1984 concert.

Carol Jacobs served as Archivist for The Cleveland Orchestra from 1990 to 2007.