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March on Washington 50th: D.C. native Denyce Graves adds her voice to celebration

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The 50th anniversary of the March on Washington evokes memories of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and his "I Have a Dream" speech heralding equal rights and opportunity for all.

Participants in the culminating event, the mass March for Jobs and Justice on Wednesday may begin the day at a 9 a.m. interfaith service at the Martin Luther King Memorial in West Potomac Park. Afterward, the marchers will continue on to the Lincoln Memorial, where the Let Freedom Ring and Call to Action presentation is scheduled to begin at 11:30 a.m.

President Obama and former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton are the featured speakers during the ceremony, which will pause at 3 p.m. to ring bells marking the very minute King delivered his historic address. People across the country may participate by ringing bells at that moment wherever they are. The ceremony ends at 4 p.m.

Daily musical and cultural events open to everyone were chosen to inspire a new generation to carry on the legacy. All are free except for the elegant "I Have a Dream" Gospel Brunch on Sunday. Musical selections honoring the occasion will be performed by renowned mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves, a Washington native and favorite daughter, along with numbers by the Voices of Worship choir directed by Felicia Kessel-Crawley.

Members of the King family will attend the brunch that begins at 11:30 a.m. in the Grand Ballroom of the Willard InterContinental Hotel, where King edited his famous speech the night before the civil rights rally. Each guest will receive a commemorative keepsake.

"I'm honored to be part of the event," Miss Graves told The Washington Times. "When I began looking for appropriate numbers, John Conahan, a composer, arranger and frequent accompanist of mine from Philadelphia, advised me to look for music that will speak to Dr. King. He was one of our greatest American activists, and nothing is more iconic than his speech.

"Although my entire program [isn't yet decided] one song I've already chosen is 'Give Me Jesus.' It stands out because the words are reflective of Dr. King's values expressed in his quote: 'What good is a man who gains the whole world but loses his soul?'

"I don't ordinarily sing pop songs, but one I definitely will sing is the beautiful and heartfelt 'Let There Be Peace on Earth.' Right now, I'm looking for a fusion with gospel and spiritual numbers that blends well with the rest of the program. To close, I want something celebratory that is toe-tapping and a crowd pleaser everyone can appreciate.

"The highlight for me will be reading Dr. King's speech. He evoked everything of importance in it, including the Constitution and the Emancipation Proclamation. I'm so excited to be given this honor and can hardy wait to be there."

Following her studies at Oberlin College and the New England Conservatory, Miss Graves became a member of the Wolf Trap Opera Company, then joined the Houston Opera Studio and made her Metropolitan Opera debut in 1995. Her soaring popularity in the title roles of "Carmen" and Dalila (in "Samson et Dalila") and as other feisty heroines took her to opera houses worldwide and brought great acclaim.

Now a devoted wife and mother of a 9-year-old daughter, Miss Graves recently embarked on a new period in her life as a member of the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, where she is grooming three students to follow in her remarkable footsteps. She plans to focus her own singing career on recitals and concerts, with no more than two operas per season, perhaps one with Washington National Opera in the not too distant future.

"I absolutely see myself in my students," she said. "I'm moved by their own stories and tenacity that ignites fires. It's a pleasure to prepare them for recitals and operas. I've learned so much from them and enjoy watching them develop."

WHAT: "I Have a Dream" Gospel Brunch featuring Denyce Graves, Voices of Worship Choir

WHERE: Willard Grand Ballroom, Willard InterContinental, 1401 Pennsylvania Ave. NW

WHEN: Sunday, Aug. 25, 11:30 a.m.

TICKETS: $132

PHONE: 202-637-7350

WEB: washington.intercontinental.com

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