The Reverand Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. envisioned a world reconciled in love and free from hate and bitterness. Dr. King dreamed of the "beloved community." For civil rights leaders and the black community, music was a medium to communicate this dream.
"Jazz speaks for life. The Blues tell the story of life's difficulties, and if you think for a moment, you will realize that they take the hardest realities of life and put them into music, only to come out with some new hope or sense of triumph. This is triumphant music."
-Martin Luther King Jr.
This past Martin Luther King Jr. Day, New York celebrated the life, legacy, and dream of Dr. King with music, art, and poetry at Civil Rights: Then & Now, an MLK Day Celebration. The virtual celebration streamed online and on-air on WMHT and PBS stations across the state. Featured in the one-hour program were ESYO alumnus Avery Roach, ESYO Symphony violist Peyton Roach, and ESYO String Orchestra violist Cristiane Richardson. Together, as members of the Albany-based Macedonia String Trio, Avery, Peyton, and Cristiane performed an arrangement of "Lift Every Voice & Sing" at the million-dollar staircase inside the New York State Capitol.
Originally written as a poem by NAACP leader James Weldon Johnson and set to music by his brother John Rosamond Johnson in 1900, the song became a standard in black church hymnals and revered as an anthem for freedom and the affirmation of African American people. In 1919, amid increased racial tension and violence, the NAACP formally dubbed "Lift Every Voice & Sing" as the "Negro National Anthem." Since its premiere in Jacksonville, Florida, on Abraham Lincoln's Birthday, February 12, 1900, "Lift Every Voice & Sing" remains an enduring song of hope leading our communities towards the realization of Dr. King's dream of a beloved community.
Peyton Roach, who plays viola in ESYO Symphony Orchestra, commented on the significance of the performance, " It meant a lot, and it was very special to me because it's a very unifying piece with a great viola part," she said. "I've experienced racism before, and I've been called the n-word. It felt good to be able to perform a triumphant piece about lifting your voice, especially because we recorded it during a time of social unrest and violence towards black people."
"The fact that we were playing it for Dr. King Day was meaningful," she continued. "He was a very important figure in Civil Rights, and we tend to look over a lot of what he did and how people treated him. We often look at the past with rose-tinted glasses and forget that while a lot of people liked him, a lot of people really hated him."
ESYO Alumni and cellist Avery Roach, who learned to compose music during his time in ESYO, composed the arrangement of "Lift Every Voice & Sing" for the Macedonia String Quartet. When asked about the significance of this arrangement, he said: "As a black composer, I believe that elevating black music is incredibly important because music is an integral part of African American culture."
Avery and Peyton's Mom, Monica Roach, who played cello in ESYO from 1980 to 1984 and now works for ESYO as a Master Teaching Artist for ESYO CHIME, said: "I was at the point of tears when they hit that right take. I was thinking about what it was like, many years ago, when I first played for the Governor as a member of ESYO. I remember the feeling and sense of importance, and now my children and Cristiane have come full circle to celebrate the memory of Dr. King in our State Capitol." Monica founded the Macedonia Chamber Orchestra and Quartet at the Macedonia Baptist Church in Albany five years ago with her children and thirteen other young musicians.
Their performance and the entire program is archived online at WMHT.org.