Usually, the highlight of every June for me is holding forth at the piano during University of Kentucky Opera Theatre's spectacular pops concert, "It's a Grand Night for Singing."
This year, however, that excitement was eclipsed by the opportunities to perform for 50th anniversary commemorations of two historic events: the June 11, 1963, desegregation of the University of Alabama, when President John F. Kennedy federalized the Alabama National Guard to stop Gov. George Wallace from blocking two black students from entering the school, and Kennedy's visit to his family's ancestral home in New Ross, Ireland, the country's first visit by a sitting U.S. president.
As the thrill and honor of providing music for both occasions sinks in, I have been reflecting on the importance of celebrating historic events and the vital role music plays in making these ceremonies meaningful.
Both opportunities came my way because of my long-time mentor and colleague Everett McCorvey, director of UK Opera and The American Spiritual Ensemble. We have made a lot of wonderful music together over the years with both organizations, and our professional association has been the most important and fruitful relationship of my career.
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Having obtained all three of his degrees from the University of Alabama, Everett was a natural choice as the singer for Through the Doors, an event 50 years to the day after the university was desegregated. Our musical numbers, interspersed throughout the speeches, underscored the meaning of the event with an emotive impact that talking alone could never convey. We offered a wide selection of material — a patriotic song, two spirituals, an inspirational show tune and the Alabama Alma Mater, which I learned for the occasion. We heard comment after comment about how this spiritual had made people cry or that anthem had given them goose bumps. It was even meaningful to some that I had played the Alma Mater from memory — you never know how or when you are going to touch someone with any given moment in a performance.
Everett chronicled his experience of this event for the Herald-Leader a few weeks ago. He wrote about being a black boy in Montgomery during the civil rights era and watching with fear, then gradually feeling empowerment as the struggle for racial equality advanced.
In the context of a life, 50 years seems like such a long time and such a short time at once. To stand with Everett as a black man and a white man who are friends and equals in front of the doors Wallace tried to block moved me deeply.
It was a moment of moral truth I will never forget.
Not even a week later, I was on a plane to Ireland in the company of four soloists from The American Spiritual Ensemble to perform several preliminary concerts before Everett came to join us June 22 for the gigantic, internationally televised event, The Homecoming, honoring the legacy of JFK 50 years after his epochal visit to the land of his fathers. That was just a week after his famous speech responding to the Alabama desegregation in which he upheld that civil rights were a moral issue.
His message resonated profoundly with the Irish, who have known their share of oppression.
First, we traded sets of traditional Irish church songs and Negro spirituals in a concert with a parish choir in Dunboyne. Later, we performed on two of Ireland's most prominent radio programs, one of them a talk show in which soprano Karen Slack and I got to demystify the Irish public on racial stereotypes in the music profession.
On the night before the main event, the New Ross town council threw a lavish banquet, attended by a large representation of the Kennedy clan. After numerous speeches we began our concert at 12:30 a.m. I played a couple of selections with Irish tenor Ronan Tynan, then the Spiritual Ensemble soloists performed a half-hour set of spirituals, opera arias, show tunes and my own piano medley of Stephen Foster songs for good measure. We closed the show with Tynan leading us in Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah.
I had narrated the program to emphasize how all music touches us universally because it addresses the human condition, and boy, did it ever. We had stoic Irish lads weeping when our bass Kevin Thompson sang Ol' Man River. We stayed up until dawn talking, laughing and sharing with people who did not want the evening to end.
The big event at Quayside Park, attended by 10,000, was one of the most glorious experiences of my life. For our part in the program, we performed a couple of spirituals, then Everett led the audience in the civil rights hymn Oh Freedom, which had the Kennedys dancing in the front row. Later, the entire clan greeted us personally, thanking us for our music. What they could not know is how deeply honored we were to give back to the Kennedy family a small measure of all they have meant to our nation.
I know we will never forget the program's end, singing Amazing Grace with Judy Collins while fighter jets flew in formation overhead. We got to fly home on the chartered plane with several of the Kennedys, and Karen Slack gave them one last thrill by singing America the Beautiful as the plane touched down on U.S. soil.
Music ennobles special events to a degree that it would be unthinkable not to include it. It touches our hearts on commemorative occasions with a spiritual force that words alone cannot engender. I feel so blessed that by virtue of my professional associations, I should be the pianist out of the many thousands in the world to contribute to these occasions and bear witness to these historic remembrances of the struggle for human freedom and dignity worldwide.