Maya Angelou. Danny Glover. Willie Stargell. James Earl Jones. These are just a few of the Black American luminaries who have appeared as narrator in concert performances of Joseph Schwantner’s “New Morning for the World,” a piece for orchestra that includes the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
On Feb. 16, attorney, author, and civil rights activist Anita Hill will join those ranks, when she narrates the piece at Symphony Hall with the Boston Conservatory Orchestra during a concert celebrating Black History Month.
Has she ever done anything like this before? “Of course, I do it every week,” Hill said wryly before laughing and admitting she hadn’t read music since participating in high-school chorus. “This is a singular moment in terms of what I’ve done in my career.” She added that she’s grateful there are so many recordings of the piece online — “I get a sense for the differences” — and she’s preparing for her orchestral debut by working with a coach. “I want to be sure that I’m doing the absolute best I can,” she said.
Hill became a nationally recognized figure in 1991 when she testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that Clarence Thomas, then a nominee for a seat on the Supreme Court, had sexually harassed her during his time as her supervisor at two federal agencies. She has taught courses on gender, social policy, and law at Brandeis University since 1998.
Even though the text she will be narrating is a product of a particular time, said Hill, “it’s language that transcends time, and from time to time I think it becomes even more relevant.”
As an example, she cited one quote from King’s 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail” that is included in the piece: “If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail. We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands.”
Sometimes in periods of extreme change, it can seem that progress on civil rights is being rolled back, Hill said, but “if we can just recall that we have been through those hard times, we understand that we will continue to struggle, and then we will continue to survive and grow.”
Michael Shinn, executive director of Boston Conservatory at Berklee, asked Hill if she would be interested in participating in the concert after connecting through a colleague. He called Hill an “inspiration” due to her “incredible work in elevating and supporting anti-discrimination of women over the last 30-plus years.”
Most of Hill’s current students at Brandeis were not yet born when she testified against Thomas, an event which was chronicled in a 2013 documentary by Frieda Lee Mock and dramatized in the 2016 HBO film “Confirmation,” in which Kerry Washington portrayed Hill. Hill said that when she welcomes a class, she never knows how much those students may or may not know about her background, but she doesn’t give it much thought, either.
“I don’t teach ‘me’,” she said. “And they don’t ask for that story to be told in the classroom. But I’m willing to share it. . . . We learn from many sources, and if I share my story, I look at it as only one of many that have contributed to where we are today.”
The concert, conducted by professor Bruce Hangen, will also include music by William Grant Still, Margaret Bonds, Valerie Coleman, and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. Hill said she hopes her performance and the show at large will motivate people to both hear King’s words in the context of the time in which they were written, and to think about “how it speaks to where we are today.”
“I want people to feel like they’re welcome,” she said, “and part of a conversation.”
BOSTON CONSERVATORY ORCHESTRA: CELEBRATING BLACK HISTORY MONTH
Feb. 16, 8 p.m. Symphony Hall. https://bostonconservatory.berklee.edu/