Baltimore County

Music and ministry mix in Sing for King concert

According to North Laurel musician Mack Statham, if we quiet our spirits and reflect more deeply on what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached, what we are searching for exists outside race, creed, color or religion.

"Everybody is interested in improving their lives," Statham said. A pianist, organist, composer and music teacher, Statham said that when he can inspire change using the piano as his canvas, "I can't tell you how rewarding that is."

To honor the memory of the slain civil rights leader, who would have been 84 on Jan. 15, Statham will lead the sixth annual Sing for King concert Sunday, Jan. 20, at First Baptist Church of Laurel. The free event is sponsored by Laurel Mayor Craig Moe, the Laurel City Council and the Laurel Clergy Association. The program will be highlighted by Statham's rousing "Trilogy of Dreams," written for chorus, orchestra, piano and organ, along with portions of Statham's cantata, "Whence We Came and Where We Are."

Statham will be joined on stage by his son, Robert, a pianist who teaches at Ottley Music School in Hyattsville. Participating choir members come from Laurel area churches, and congregations as far away as Damascus and Baltimore.

For Statham, 78, helping shepherd distinctly unique sounds into one harmonious whole is his crowning achievement. He said the excitement inside of him builds as the days and weeks leading up to the performance peel away. Preparations begin each year in September and include at least two rehearsals each month.

"People don't realize how much work is involved," Statham said.

Growing in music

A native of Sparrows Point, in Baltimore County, Statham began singing hymns in the Baptist Church at age 8. He earned a Bachelor of Science degree in music education from Hampton Institute in Hampton, Va., and went on to teach music in public schools in North Carolina, Delaware and Maryland.

Paralleling his musical involvement, Statham rose through the ranks to executive positions in the insurance industry. But music, his first love, never took second place, and he continued serving music ministries as organist in numerous churches and taught at the Laurel School of Music.

Statham, known by many as "Dr. Mack," holds an honorary doctorate of music degree from Virginia Seminary and College. He performed the organ postlude at the National Prayer Service for President Bill Clinton's inaugural celebration in January 1997, and has performed with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the Baltimore Symphony Chorus.

For the past 10 years, he's played the organ during the 8:15 a.m. traditional service at First United Methodist Church on Main Street.

The Rev. Chris Owens, who has been at First United Methodist for six years, said Statham's essence lights up the sanctuary.

"Everyone looks forward to his preludes and postludes," Owens said. "Dr. Mack is one of the few people in our community who has brought people together in a way I've rarely seen. It's a testament to what music can do."

Owens will lend his voice as a tenor in Sunday night's concert and his wife, Blairlee, an alto, will also sing.

Statham's father, Tas, worked for more than 40 years as a rigging foreman at Bethlehem Steel. Early on, Statham said, a paternal decree came down, and it was non-negotiable: Music lessons would automatically kick-in beginning at age 6.

"I wasn't looking forward to it," Statham said, "but once they started, that was it."

As a child, Statham once gathered the confidence to enter a contest at a church in Baltimore City. He borrowed the trolley fare, around 10 or 15 cents, from his parents.

"They didn't mind letting me go, because the contest would be at a church," Statham said.

When it was Statham's turn, he performed "Autumn," by Parisian composer Cecile Chaminade, a piece he chose because of the technical skills it required and because "the melody is gorgeous," he said.

Once all 10 contestants played, Statham was chosen as the winner and jubilantly rushed home with $50 in prize money.

"Everyone at home was flabbergasted," he remembered, smiling.

A writing 'frenzy'

In all of its genres — classical to hip-hop to blues and rock — music flows from a spiritual river that flows deep within, Statham said. In his own career as a composer, nuggets of ideas have revealed themselves in random places. For example, in 1988, while he was on a plane bound for Atlanta and a National Urban League convention, he had it in his head that he wanted to compose "something big and grand in relationship to Dr. King's life" and started writing on the plane.

"I see the notes in my head," Statham said. "When you get ideas, they come so fast, you want to write them down. I get into a frenzy."

After arriving in Atlanta, "I stayed up half the night," he said. "I called my wife and said, 'you won't believe this, but I finished eight bars of Trilogy of Dreams.' "

Statham said that when preparing for a concert, his expectations are high from an audience, but not as high as the expectations of himself.

"Whatever you do — in any profession — if you do it to the absolute best of your ability, it helps people appreciate what it's all about, and it becomes meaningful."

Owens underscored Statham's durability with an illustration. At a Sing for King program a few years back, he recalled, Statham played "Trilogy of Dreams" with a broken arm.

"He just doesn't quit," Owens said. "His elbow was in a splint. It was astounding. That was his heart on display when you see something like that."

At every show, before striking the first note, Statham recites a silent prayer at the keyboard. Then, as his work begins, the world around him slowly melts away.

The musical energy released, he said, "makes your body tingle. It's like you're being shocked; the music is electrocuting you. It's the most thrilling high you can get in life."

The sixth annual Sing for King is Sunday, Jan. 20, at 7 p.m., at First Baptist Church of Laurel, 15000 First Baptist Lane. The event will include readings from King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail," in recognition of its 50th anniversary this year. The concert is free; donations will be accepted to benefit the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C., and a local charity. A reception will follow. For information, call Becky Boeckman at 757-408-4890.

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