After more than 20 years, this year the Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Commission decided not to partner with the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra for its annual MLK Celebration Concert. Instead, the Commission moved its program from the traditional location of the historic Tennessee Theatre to the much smaller Cox Auditorium on the University of Tennessee campus.
“We just decided to go in a different direction,” Deborah Porter, chair of the MLK Commemorative Commission, told me back last fall when the decision was made.
“We were really surprised and saddened,” said Rachel Ford, chief executive officer of the Knoxville Symphony. “It had become an important event for us. It was something all the musicians and staff looked forward to every year.”
After a few days, however, the Symphony folks pulled themselves together and sprang into action. They checked on the time of the Commission’s event and scheduled a free performance of their own at a time that did not compete. The Symphony concert was at 3 p.m. this past Sunday at the Tennessee Theatre. The Commission’s free concert was at 6 at Cox Auditorium. One group of performers, the “Drums Up, Guns Down” drum corps from East Knoxville, played at both of them.
It turned out to be an excellent decision — on the part of both groups. KSO Music Director Aram Demirjian relished the responsibility of putting together a program. He secured the services of some top-notch local professionals — in addition to Drums Up, Guns Down — and put together a show that was a knockout.
All the participants had performed with the Symphony before: opera singer Michael Rodgers, Knoxville poet laureate Rhea Carmon, and Obayana Ajanaku and his Indigenous Vibes “edutainment group.” Ajanaku also directs Drums Up, Guns Down.
The Tennessee Theatre audience — which was around 100 people last year — swelled to 700 this year. “We didn’t know what to expect,” Ford said. “But we were really happy with the response.”
The Commemorative Commission was happy with its decision, as well. “It’s a different venue,” Porter said from the stage. “But the same great show.” (Yes, I went to both of them!) And their audience was larger than last year, too. It looked to be between 250 and 300.
During the process of seeing both shows, I actually had an attitude change. At first, I thought it was ridiculous to have two separate concerts. I thought they should have been combined. But, after seeing both of them, I realized that they really are two different shows with different intents.
The KSO is a large professional organization and the artists they secured– except for Drums Up, Guns Down — were primarily working professionals. The Commemorative Commission put on a show that was much more grass roots. Think: a combination of church choir and community talent show. It was sweet. It featured young amateur performers including the “Celebration Youth Choir” — with young children who had to be corralled to get on and off the stage — and the Vine Middle School Dance Company. The audience loved it and had a great time singing along and encouraging the folks on stage. (I only stayed for the concert portion of the program. There also was a dramatic performance in the second half.)
I learned through the course of Sunday that there’s a place for both ways of celebrating the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. And separating them might have been an inspired decision after all.
The concert was made possible by sponsorship of the The Boyd Foundation, Knox County Commissioner Dasha Lundy and the Tennessee Theatre.
Then, it was off to Cox Auditorium for me.
Would you like to hear some music?
Here’s a snippet of Drums Up, Guns Down from the Tennessee Theatre performance:
And two excerpts from the Celebration Youth Choir at Cox Auditorium: