Titans of music and human rights meet on common ground

Ward Stare
Go Memphis

By Jon W. Sparks

This is the 16th year the Memphis Symphony Orchestra has performed a tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the program for this weekend's concerts is particularly powerful.

Unlike past concerts that often had a variety of tunes, the Masterworks performances will have only two: Mozart's Requiem and Mendelssohn's Fifth Symphony (The Reformation).

As choices go, these two masterpieces have a profound connection with the life and work of the civil rights leader they honor.

"The Mozart Requiem is a piece reserved to be performed in memory of someone of significance and certainly Dr. King fits that bill," says guest conductor Ward Stare.

Stare, who is in his second season as the resident conductor of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra and music director of the Saint Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra, is enthusiastic about this weekend's program.

"When I came into the project, the Requiem was in place for the second half of the concert. They asked what would work well in the first half and what immediately came to mind was Mendelssohn's Fifth, called the 'Reformation' symphony after the reforms led by Martin Luther (in the 16th century) who was Dr. King's namesake."

King was baptized Michael Luther King, Jr. after his birth in 1929.

But in 1934, his father, influenced by the German theologian Luther, changed both their names.

"That's an important connection and Dr. King was well aware of it," Stare said, citing one of the clearest examples. Luther, in 1517, was demanding change in the Catholic Church establishment, famously posting his challenging 95 Theses on the doors of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. The action spurred the Protestant Reformation along with enormous social changes.

King, in 1966, spent a good deal of time in Chicago calling for an end to slums as well as an end to discrimination in education and employment. On July 10th of that year, he spoke to 50,000 people at Soldier Field Stadium and then led most of them to City Hall where he attached a list of demands to the office door of then-mayor Richard Daley.

As for Mozart's Requiem, there is also a parallel with King's life.

The work was composed by Mozart on his deathbed but was uncompleted when he died in 1791. "The fact that it was left unfinished ties it in to Dr. King and his work which had come a long way but was and still is unfinished," Store says.

Furthermore, there are connections between the two composers.

"A lot of Mendelssohn's contemporaries saw him as the heir to Mozart's throne," Stare says. "Mendelssohn, like Mozart, was also a great prodigy, composing at a young age. He exhibited a complete mastery of older styles going back to Bach, but also forward looking in that he thought about programmatic music and writing in different styles."

And there is even a tragic connection among the three titans of music and humanity at the center of this weekend's concerts. "They died far too young -- in their 30s. All had those things in common and we all wish they had lived much longer."

This year, the economy dictated that the MSO would have to charge for admission, said Ryan Fleur, MSO president and CEO. The concert had been free or low-cost in the past.

However, a diverse group of sponsors and supporters are making many tickets available. They include Holy Spirit Catholic Church, Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church, St. Agnes Academy -- St. Dominic School, St. George's Independent School, Smith & Nephew, Toof Commercial Printing, Elvis Presley Enterprises, Temple Israel, AT&T and the Marriott Downtown.