- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 16, 2002

Sunday night's celebration at the Kennedy Center may have had its somber moments, but it was joy that brought the audience to its feet at the Choral Arts Society of Washington's 14th Annual Choral Tribute to Martin Luther King Jr., an event originally established "to give musical and visual reality to the message that we are all brothers and sisters."

Which is to remember, of course, that the great civil rights leader who, in a better world, would have turned 73 yesterday considered music "the soul of a movement."

The chorus was joined by the Heritage Signature Chorale, the D.C. Boys Choir and Coyaba Dance Theater, all led by co-music directors Arphelius Paul Gatling and Barbara Baker.

"They're so nervous and excited," said Boys Choir music director Eleanor Stewart, who looked a bit nervous and excited herself just before the show.

It is a major affair 2,400 persons filled the concert hall held before King's birthday so WETA (Channel 26) can broadcast it on the official holiday (Monday at 9 p.m.). The first took place in 1989, the year Martin Luther King Jr. Day became a national holiday.

According to longtime supporters, the sold-out concert gets more popular each year. "It just caught on," explained Bill McSweeny, one of the original supporters of the annual tribute. "It's a wonderful event, and it's got this wonderful emotion to it."

The America Online-sponsored preconcert reception in the Israeli Lounge was quickly jammed with 150 high-profile supporters, including Reps. Carrie P. Meek, Florida Democrat, Sheila Jackson-Lee, Texas Democrat, and Maxine Waters, California Democrat; D.C. Council members Carol Schwartz, Jim Graham, Kevin P. Chavous, Kathleen Patterson, Vincent Orange, Harold Brazil and Sandra Allen; former Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson; entrepreneur Jonathan Ledecky; Bitsey Folger, Dr. Aaron and Alexine Jackson; Miss District of Columbia USA 2002 Shauntaye Hinton; and chairwoman of the tribute, Stacey Davis, president and chief executive officer of the Fannie Mae Foundation.

Choral Arts' founder and music director Norman Scribner reminded the crowd that "Music is a healing force" while stressing that the concert and its powerful message were meant for everyone.

"This is probably one of the cheapest events you can go to at the Kennedy Center," he said later, noting that general admission was only $15, with 250 tickets distributed free to local schools. "We don't want anyone to not be able to come because they don't have enough money."

The program ranged from the classical, "Pie Jesu" from Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Requiem," to the spiritual, "I Know I've Been Changed," punctuated by wild and wonderful West African dance movements by the Coyaba Dance Theater. Actress and choreographer Debbie Allen was a voluptuous mistress of ceremonies in her form-fitting black dress.

The traditional closing song is always "Precious Lord," a moving hymn that was played during King's funeral service 34 years ago. The crowd stood and joined the professionals on stage in a heartfelt rendition: "Through the storm, through the night, lead me on to the light, take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home ."

"It's a spiritual experience," Juanita Wallace Jackson said. "And it just gets better every year."

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