A musical director whose outsized talents took the Morgan State University choir from local concerts to White House performances is now memorialized in a larger-than-life bronze bust sculpted by a presidential portraitist.
On what would have been Nathan M. Carter Jr.'s 71st birthday, 2,000 friends, admirers, former students and relatives gathered yesterday at Morgan's performing arts center to witness the unveiling of artist Simmie Knox's sculpture of the late choir director - depicted in his trademark tails and ruffled shirt, arms raised mid-flourish, gazing up with evident pride at his ensemble.
Carter, who died in 2004 at age 68, is credited with raising the Morgan choir to international prominence during his 34 years as its director.
"He was Morgan's cultural ambassador," said university President Earl S. Richardson. "He raised African-American music and American music to a new and lofty plateau in the minds and hearts of music lovers around the world."
After two hours of joyous singing and lyrical oratorical tributes that occasionally brought the crowd to its feet, the stage lights were dimmed, the Morgan marching band played a fanfare and the bust was slowly rolled out under a spotlight to a sustained ovation.
It will be displayed permanently in the newly dedicated Nathan M. Carter Atrium of the Carl J. Murphy Fine Arts Center.
The bust was commissioned about two months before Carter died of pancreatic cancer, and it is the first of three memorial sculptures planned by the Nathan Carter Foundation, said foundation chairwoman Alethia B. Starke.
By the end of the year, the foundation hopes to raise enough money to commission two lifelike wax depictions of Carter, for use by the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum.
The sculptor, Knox, is an in-demand painter best known for his official portraits of former President Bill Clinton and his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.
The Carter project was Knox's first commissioned sculpture since the 1970s, he said.
"I was glad to be able to reconnect with sculpture, something that I have wanted to do for years," said Knox, 71, who lives in Silver Spring and was recently commissioned to depict talk-show host Oprah Winfrey.
Starke said the foundation wanted a sculpture rather than a portrait because only a three-dimensional form could capture Carter's "larger than life" personality. "He was a small-statured man, but big in service," she said.
The speakers at yesterday's ceremony reached for lofty language when trying to capture Carter's essence.
"Unawed by opinion, unseduced by flattery, undismayed by disaster, he was a maker of music and a drum major for perfection," said former U.S. Rep. Kweisi Mfume. "He was a stalwart in the storm, one who stood steady and steadfast through it all."
Named "America's Best College Choir" in 2004 by Reader's Digest, the choir under Carter's hand performed for the pope and at the White House. It toured the world's capitals and recorded with the Chicago, Los Angeles and Baltimore symphony orchestras.
The eldest of five children, Carter began taking music lessons at age 5. He earned undergraduate degrees in choral conducting from the Hampton Institute in Hampton, Va., and the Juilliard School of Music. He came to Baltimore in 1969 to pursue a doctorate at the Peabody Conservatory, and soon afterward took over the Morgan State University choir.
In addition to being a celebrated vocal director, Carter also left a mark as a music educator and community leader. He established the choral program at the Baltimore School for the Arts and was involved in the development of the $40 million Murphy arts center, where the choir rehearses.
In a lighthearted moment, Carter's son, Ryan Carter, took to the podium and warned the choir's current director, Eric A. Conway, to keep the choir up to the standards set by his famously exacting predecessor, else the sculpture might come to life.
"Keep this choir sounding as good as it does now," Ryan Carter said. "If not, you might hear some noise emanating from the atrium."