Meyerhoff showcases young voices Boys Choir performs Saturday, 'African Portraits' set for Jan. 15


TWO CONCERTS of music showing the black experience are planned at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall this month. The first is the Boys Choir of Harlem singing a mixed program including the works of Adolphus Hailstork and Duke Ellington and the second honors Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with the Baltimore premiere of Hannibal Peterson's "African Portraits."

Singing at 2 p.m. Saturday are 35 members of the Boys Choir of Harlem, one of the busiest choral groups in the country. Members, who are 10 to 18, are part of a larger choir of 150. They have their own school where they must keep a B average, sing everything form rock to baroque, spend most weekends on the road and will be subjects of a future full-length movie.

The Druid Hill YMCA picked fifty Baltimore children who were introduced to the concert-going experience by meeting four times before the concert to study the choir's repertory, tour the Meyerhoff and host a reception for the choir after the Saturday show.

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra describes the program as "a first step" in a joint BSO-YMCA partnership to offer another "entree in the cultural and musical diet" of inner-city black children. The results will determine what comes next in the program. The BSO is not playing Saturday. Tickets are $14 to $26 and are available by calling 783-8000.

One of the Harlem choir boys, not yet picked, will be back in Baltimore at 8:15 p.m. Jan. 15 to sing in the King Memorial concert with artists of the "African Portraits" troupe, the Morgan State University Choir led by Dr. Nathan Carter and the BSO. Excerpts from King's speeches will be read. (His birthday will be celebrated Jan. 21.) Tickets are free and become available, two to a person, Monday at the BSO box office. The concert hall has 2,471 seats.

"African Portraits," a key part of the King concert, is a 40-minute opera or series of musical and narrated passages on African and black American history. The BSO and three other groups commissioned the work, whose world premiere was Nov. 11 at New York's Carnegie Hall.

Paul Dunkel will conduct, and Papa Bunka Susso will narrate. Singers include gospel singer Vanessa Bell Armstrong, David "Honey Boy" Edwards and Peterson. Other performers include Peterson's Quartet and the African Heritage Dancers and Drummers.

Concert-goers Saturday will hear a varied menu within the Harlem Boys program.

"We mix our programs a lot," said Walter J. Turnbull, the 46-year-old choir director who co-founded the group with Ruth Dixon. "In Baltimore, we'll sing several movements from the Mozart Vespers. I like Adolphus Hailstork, and we'll sing his cantata, 'I will lift up mine eyes.' Then some spirituals and gospels, some Gershwin and a medley from [Duke] Ellington including 'Mood Indigo' and 'Love You Madly.'

"I love the Meyerhoff. This is our fourth concert there. We'll also have two men singing -- Michael Bennett, the science teacher in our Boys Choir Academy. He has Baltimore ties, studied at Morgan and Peabody. The other is Jason Oby, another academy teacher. He's singing a tenor part in the Hailstork."

"The most challenging work [Saturday] is Hailstork's cantata," Turnbull said. Hailstork, increasingly played in the United States and Europe, is a black classical composer born in 1941 in Rochester, N.Y. He has written in different musical forms using contemporary harmonics and ethnic influences.

Hailstork's orchestral pieces include three of his series of "American Landscapes." His chamber pieces include "Capriccio for a Departed Brother: Scott Joplin." One of his vocal works was "Lament for the Children of Biafra" and another was a memorial to the poet Langston Hughes. An early piece in 1963 was for the stage, "The Race for Space."

Turnbull founded the choir in 1968 as the Ephesus Church Choir of Central Harlem. The choir was incorporated in 1975, added a girls choir, which won't he here Saturday, has more than 200 young voices and travels extensively. Members are chosen in a highly competitive process. They released two albums in 1988, Handel's "Ode for St. Cecilia's Day" and "Fetes Traditionalles Americaines." They plan to record jazz pieces by pianist James Williams later this year with Williams. The choir gives special emphasis to black composers, even commissioning works from such musicians as Hailstork.

Besides conducting, the native of Greenville, Miss., is an established operatic and concert tenor. Turnbull made his operatic debut with the Houston Grand Opera in Scott Joplin's "Treemonisha."

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