The Philadelphia Orchestra presents its free annual Martin Luther King Jr. Tribute Concert on Monday, Jan. 21 at 4 p.m. at Martin Luther King High School. Music Director Yannick Nezet-Seguin leads the Orchestra for the first time, while storyteller Charlotte Blake Alston reads the “I Have a Dream” speech over Samuel Barber’s haunting Adagio for Strings as performed by the Orchestra.
This concert, first presented in 1991, reflects the beliefs and convictions of the famed civil rights leader, combing the traditions of African-American culture and Western classical music. The concert pays tribute to King’s religious beliefs, his vision of a society free of prejudice and racial divisions, and his belief in the power of music to effect change.
“We gather each year to pay tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and to commemorate his vision, which has inspired millions of people here in our city, throughout our country, and across the globe, “says Philadelphia Orchestra president and CEO Allison Vulgamore.
“In l991, I became the first storyteller to perform with the orchestra on both their family and student concert series,” Alston explains. “One day I was asked to host the Martin Luther King concert. I quickly agreed because I felt what was missing from the concert was the spoken word abut this man who spoke with such power, himself. And I’ve been invited back ever since.”
Growing up in Philadelphia, Alston’s mother was a church organist who insisted all her children take piano lessons, and her father was a mailman who loved the written and spoken word.
“My father couldn’t carry a tune from the living room to the dining room,” she says, “but he loved to escape to his room to read in peace. Because I was a daddy’s girl, I often went into the room with him and sat quietly on the floor. Over time, he started reading out loud to me and then gave me a poem to read. I memorized it. Then he started writing little monologues for me to read and perform in church. And that’s basically where the seeds were planted for all I’ve been doing over the years.”
And some of what she’s been doing — aside from her association with the Orchestra — includes hosting “Carnegie Kids,” Carnegie Hall’s Preschool concert series, and has been a featured artist on the Carnegie Hall Family Concert Series in New York since 1996.
She’s also been a featured teller on the National Storytelling Festival, the National Festival of Black Storytelling, and at regional festivals throughout North America and abroad. And much, much more.
She has received numerous honors including the prestigious Pew Fellowship in the Arts, was the recipient of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Artist of the Year Award and others. Additionally, she holds two honorary Ph.D.s and received the Circle of Excellence Award from the National Storytelling Association.
And with it all, she keeps coming back to the sincere honor she feels in recreating the “I Have a Dream Speech.” She says, “To follow in the legacy of this great Black orator and preacher, who could inspire such hope in people, is amazing and humbling at the same time.
“I actually hear his voice in my head when I speak his words,” she continues. “I look at the reaction of the audience every single year and I can see that the words still resonate with everyone. I am truly honored to be doing this and look forward to it with pride each passing year.”