scorecardresearch
Classical Notes

Boston Children’s Chorus pursues ‘raw truth’ in MLK concert

Demetra Vernet (center) and the Boston Children’s Chorus rehearse.
Demetra Vernet (center) and the Boston Children’s Chorus rehearse.(Justin Saglio for The Boston Globe)

There is no better way to understand the mission of the Boston Children’s Chorus than to let its artistic director, Anthony Trecek-King, describe it in his own words.

“We look at everything we do as a vehicle for understanding differences and working towards building a better society,” he said in a recent phone interview. He knows that that’s “awfully lofty of a thing to say,” but he believes it fully. “It’s what wakes me up every morning.”

Part of that mission consists in simply getting kids together — more than 500 of them, ages 7 to 18, from more than 120 zip codes across Massachusetts. They come together from different neighborhoods and backgrounds, which is an essential part of the BCC’s vision.

Advertisement



“Cities are becoming increasingly segregated by neighborhood,” Trecek-King explained. “And we hear from [the kids] that they don’t have the opportunity to spend much time, meaningful time, with someone who’s different from them, their neighborhoods. This is an opportunity to get outside of that and experience who these other people are, who they normally aren’t able to interact with in a meaningful way.”

The worth of this approach emerged over the last few years, with the seemingly endless series of confrontations between police and African Americans. “When Trayvon Martin happened, when Ferguson erupted, Tamir Rice, Kalief Browder, we bring them up and we have discussions. And what I’m finding out — and it’s not surprising — is that not only are they not talking about this in their schools and communities . . . but they’re being discouraged from talking about it. And I understand why. As a schoolteacher, there’s a line where you can potentially get yourself in trouble.

“The exact opposite is true here at the Boston Children’s Chorus,” he continued. “If I don’t talk about these things, if I’m not bringing them up, having the discussion, then I’m not doing my job.”

Advertisement



Every year the chorus holds a special concert on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. This year’s iteration will feature the BCC’s top three choirs — 123 students between the ages of 10 and 18. When planning this year’s performance, Trecek-King found himself focusing on what he called “the raw instrument of the human voice.”

Then he began thinking about the word “raw,” what it meant both musically and societally. That led him, finally, to the theme of Monday’s concert: “Raw Truth.” It’s both an acknowledgment of the dark times the country is living through and a testimony to the power of the human voice in the search for a better world.

“It’s very purposeful,” said Trecek-King. “The timing is, unfortunately, good to do something like this.”

Among the selections are a setting of words by Julian Bond, former NAACP director, composed by Trevor Weston; an arrangement of Langston Hughes’s poem “The Ballad of Harry T. Moore”; and “Glory,” from the film “Selma.” In Paul Simon’s “A Church is Burning,” the lyrics of one version are changed to “A mosque is burning.”

Also on the concert is a collaboration with the vocal octet Roomful of Teeth, whose unorthodox performance style suggested itself to Trecek-King as part of the theme of rawness and honesty. The two groups will premiere “Kalief Browder” by Brad Wells, Roomful’s director. Browder, a black teenager from the Bronx, was arrested at age 16 and held at Rikers Island for three years without ever being charged. Last year he committed suicide at the age of 22.

Advertisement



In an e-mail exchange, Wells said that the group has been “great fans of [the BCC’s] work for years” for “the creative and socially relevant programming combined with dynamic performances.” He preferred not to discuss the piece in advance, saying only that he’d been “very moved by the story of Kalief Browder; I wanted to write a piece that expressed the despair and rage I felt in learning both of his life and his death,” and that he and Trecek-King decided that the MLK Day concert was the perfect vehicle for it.

The issues that BCC confronts aren’t confined to race. One subject that the chorus members wanted to explore this season is environmental justice. And Trecek-King, after settling on the theme for the MLK concert, created a “raw truth bucket,” where chorus members could share, anonymously, the ways they think society defines them and puts them in boxes. One described being homeless for a year, lacking control over life; another, who is transgender, wrote that “society sees me by what’s between my legs not what’s in my heart.”

Trecek-King said that he had shared his own “raw truth” with them. But, he added, “there’s also a positive raw truth, which is that I get to come to BCC and sing with the community of people who support me every day. Because even though that’s your raw truth, maybe by talking about it we can start to change and shape those truths, and let people know that you are able to overcome that and define yourself in a different way.”

Advertisement



Boston Children’s Chorus:

13th Annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Tribute Concert

At Jordan Hall, Monday at 7 p.m. Tickets: $25-$55. 617-778-2242, www.bostonchildrenschorus.org/MLK


David Weininger can be reached at globeclassicalnotes@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @davidgweininger.