The life and works of John Hope Franklin (1915-2009) were celebrated with choral and instrumental music presented in Duke’s Baldwin Auditorium on a cool, wet Thursday evening. The event, coordinated by Duke Performances, involved the support and cooperation of numerous on- and off-campus individuals and agencies. What was missing was a significant recounting of the scholar’s amazing life and career, the outlines of which were merely hinted at in a very short program note. That said, chances are good that many in attendance knew Franklin and his legacy, since he was based at Duke and in Durham starting in 1983.

This gala concert featured the world premiere of a striking new work written for the occasion. The program was part of a year-long series of events at Duke and in the greater community; the first of which was apparently the Jan. 17 “Justice and Inclusion” concert, offered in the same venue, during which Kenneth Snipes read a remarkable tribute to Franklin that readers who missed that performance should certainly find on YouTube, where the entire program may be seen and heard. It was here that we learned that the struggle for recognition and equality had truly absorbed Franklin’s entire life, as made manifest in numerous books, articles, and appointments to various legal teams and panels, and culminating in his receipt of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1995.

Franklin attended Fisk University in Nashville, TN, so the involvement of that school’s world-famous Jubilee Singers, directed by Paul T. Kwami, was a stroke of genius on the part of the planners. The 16 vocalists, several of whom also appeared as soloists, project polish and refinement in their extensive repertory of spirituals, many of which are given in concert arrangements by some of our greatest specialists – on this occasion, Roland Carter, Noah F. Ryder, Canadian-born R. Nathaniel Dett (who worked extensively in the United States), and Jeff Scott, horn player extraordinaire of Imani, who created settings of three spirituals for voices and winds that capped this memorable evening.

The program got underway with breathtaking renditions of “In Bright Mansions Above” (“In my Father’s Home…”), “My Lord so High,” and “Listen to the Lambs.” The long-standing hallmarks of Fisk concerts were all present in the ensemble’s precise attention to dynamics, phrasing, diction, balance, and blend, qualities that reflect devotion to a revered tradition that, as delivered by this ensemble, some listeners might find more in keeping with Western classical music legacies than comparably long-held perceptions and memories of less refined and more emotional performances of these pieces. The soloists, from the ranks of the choir, were exceptional in every respect, here and in the closing numbers later on. (Additional commentary on the group’s performance practices may be found in Ken Hoover’s review of the choir’s last appearance at Duke, in 2013.)

Imani Winds then took the stage for the first of two impressive groups. The first consisted of the (unofficial) South African National Anthem “Nkosi sikeleli Africa,” played with the utmost imaginable reverence.

There followed the new work, Frederic Rzewski‘s Sometimes, a two-part composition based on “Sometimes I Feel like a Motherless Child” and Langston Hughes’ “Lullaby” (“God to a Hungry Child”), the latter apparently a reworking of a previous setting. It began with Scott reading from Franklin’s words {“We need a new American revolution…”), after which was stated the well-known “Motherless Child” theme before it was gradually deconstructed, always leaving behind hints of the melody. The juxtaposition of the spiritual with the Hughes poem, spoken and sung by mezzo-soprano (and oboist) Toyin Spellman-Diaz, hammered home ongoing challenges we face in our society, challenges still far from met. Rzewski was an ideal pick for this assignment as his music often involves reworkings of melodies known in other contexts. (His “Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues” has enjoyed considerable acclaim hereabouts, thanks to pianist Greg McCallum’s advocacy.) The superb performance gripped the attention of the audience as the music unfolded in the visiting composer’s presence.

Part two began with Derek Bermel‘s Wanderings (1994), a composition incorporating “folk” elements (specifically from the gyil, an early mallet instrument); the music depicts Israeli-Palestinian conflicts, here resolved musically to a certain extent, with some jazzy (or klezmatic) licks evident along the way.

Imani then concluded this portion of the program with flutist Valerie Coleman‘s powerful multi-media piece entitled speech, and canzone, for wind quintet and electro-acoustic sounds, the first part of which centered on Robert Kennedy’s Indianapolis speech after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s murder. The second part, a much less specific soundscape and aural collage, nonetheless also very much constituted a “protest” score that was, again, a stark reminder of how much work remains to be done – echoing a theme Franklin surely would have seconded, emphatically. Here and elsewhere during the evening, there was exceptional playing from all the Imani artists – the aforementioned Coleman, flute and piccolo, Spellman-Diaz, oboe and English horn, and Scott, French horn, of course, plus bassoonist Monica Ellis and clarinetist Mariam Adam.

The concert ended with Scott’s new arrangement of “Mr. Banjo,” “There Is a Balm in Gilead,” and “Rockin’ Jerusalem,” featuring the Fisk singers and the quintet in the choir’s very first collaboration with a chamber ensemble. These were given highly sophisticated settings, heard to fine advantage thanks to some slight amplification of the choir. The soloist in “Gilead” brought down the house, and the audience’s response to all three was sufficiently enthusiastic to evoke a genuine encore in the form of a repeat of part of the lively last number.

Duke Performances and its guest artists did John Hope Franklin’s memory proud. The scholar’s son suggested that as a trumpet player and singer who cherished the classics his dad would surely have been pleased.