A newly composed concerto dedicated to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, will premiere this weekend in Philadelphia, performed by Orchestra 2001.
“From the Mountaintop,” by composer and Curtis Institute faculty member Richard Danielpour, reflects the beauty and the violence of the civil rights leader’s last days.
“It’s a real journey,” said Anthony McGill, principal clarinetist with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, who was called into be the soloist for this concerto for clarinet and orchestra. “It’s very exciting at the beginning. Then you go on an emotional roller coaster. At times, it’s so unbelievably sad … at other times, it’s grand and tragic sounding. And then the ending is devastatingly beautiful.”
McGill was there for the first rehearsal, inside the auditorium of the West Philadelphia Catholic High School. Like many high school auditoriums, it was poorly lit. Floor lamps had to be hustled onstage after the trumpets complained.
“Let’s go again, and just so we understand, nobody can see,” said Orchestra 2001’s founder James Freeman, conducting the ensemble. “I understand that.”
He then gestured the orchestra into the first movement. It begins with a solo clarinet line, which the orchestra picks up. The clarinet changes, and throws the changes back to the orchestra.
Danielpour imagined the clarinet as a Southern Baptist minister, and the orchestra his congregation, telling the story of the last year of Dr. King’s life. There is a lot of call and response.
“The piece feels very liturgical,” said Danielpour. “You have the sense of that kind of jazz and gospel feel that was really popular at the time King was doing his thing.”
A few years ago, Danielpour began with a concept for a full opera about the last year of King’s life. He had attracted colleagues of Dr. King to collaborate — activist and politician Andrew Young was to be a consultant and Maya Angelou agreed to write the libretto.
Ultimately that opera did not get off the ground, but it allowed Danielpour direct access to King’s peers, who told him that the slain civil rights leader’s last year was a time of strong vision and darkness.
“In the last year of his life, he was increasingly isolated. Supporters abandoned him when he began speaking out against the war in Vietnam and humanitarian issues,” said Danielpour. “People forget his last campaign was not a black people’s campaign, but a poor people’s campaign. Many people feel that’s probably what got him killed, because he was challenging the economic infrastructure of the United States, and became – consequently and naturally – a high-security risk.”
Danielpour was 11 years old in 1968 when he saw the news announcement on TV that King had been assassinated. As the son of Iranian Jews who immigrated to America, his family knew first-hand what it meant to be marginalized.
“I can’t really write anything that just comes from my head. It would be a lie,” said Danielpour. “For me to write something, I have to believe in it from the head and heart together. Otherwise it’s just a charade.”
The first people to hear his composition were the musicians of Orchestra 2001 who rehearsed it on a Tuesday afternoon in that dimly lit high school auditorium. After the final note faded, they marked their enthusiasm by stomping their feet.
Danielpour, himself flushed with the first realization of his music, grabbed the clarinetist.
“It’s so wonderful when you know something in your heart all along that this is the person you want to do this for, and then you hear the sound outside your head and you know you were right,” he gushed at McGill. “It’s an awesome feeling.”
“From the Mountaintop” will premiere on Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Perelman Theater, in the Kimmel Center, 1500 Walnut St.