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Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration Concert

About the Program

The Cleveland Orchestra conducted by Music Director Franz Welser-Möst presented the Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration Concert at beautiful Severance Hall in Cleveland, Ohio on January 14, 2018. For more than 35 years, this Cleveland tradition has remained a deeply moving and inspiring community celebration that honors the life and legacy of Dr. King.

Providing further significance, the 2018 concert also marked the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s death, and it took place during The Cleveland Orchestra’s 100th anniversary season. Music performed featured classical selections by Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Verdi as well as traditional hymns and spirituals including “Down by the Riverside,” “Precious Lord,” and “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”

The Cleveland Orchestra was joined for this stirring performance by concert host James Pickens, Jr., a Cleveland native who is best known for his portayal of Dr. Richard Webber on Grey’s Anatomy. The concert also featured guest soloist Ryan Speedo Green, called “a show stopper” by The New York Times, and The Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration Chorus — an all-Cleveland community volunteer chorus — directed by William Henry Caldwell.

For the first time, WVIZ/PBS ideastream, a long-time community partner with The Cleveland Orchestra, recorded the Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration Concert and has made it available online and for broadcast on all TV stations in Ohio.

Additional Music

Additional music was performed during the concert but not included in the television program due to time constraints.

Felix Mendelssohn's "Lord God of Abraham" from Elijah


Felix Mendelssohn's Fourth Movement from
Symphony No. 5


Giuseppe Verdi's "Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves" from Nabucco



ideastream's Bill O'Connell speaks with Music Director Franz Welser-Möst about the concert.



Cleveland native James Pickens, Jr. talks about how Martin Luther King, Jr. factors into his early acting career and personal life.



15th Annual Martin Luther King, Jr. 2018 Community Service Awards

The awards were presented by The Cleveland Orchestra and the City of Cleveland, in cooperation with the Greater Cleveland Partnership, to individuals who made a positive impact on Cleveland in the spirit of the teachings and example of Dr. King.


What did you think about the concert?


Interesting Facts

Two years after the famous Selma marches and about a year before he was killed by an assassin, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a speech at Cleveland's Glenville High School. The speech was rediscovered on a Cleveland Metropolitan School District reel in 2012.

George Walker

George Walker is the first African-American composer to earn a Pulitzer Prize for his work, though he initially trained, from age 5, to be a concert pianist. He became the first black instrumentalist to perform with the Philadelphia Orchestra, playing Rachmaninoff's 3rd Piano Concerto in the 1940s. Now well into his 90s, Walker continues to compose. He has earned awards throughout his career, including Guggenheim, Rockefeller and Fulbright fellowships, to name a few.

One of Walker’s most popular compositions, the 1946 "Lyric for Strings," is performed in The Cleveland Orchestra’s 2018 Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration Concert. Originally titled Lament, the piece was dedicated to Walker’s grandmother, who had just passed away. It was originally the middle movement of a string quartet that Walker expanded into a larger work, due to popular public response. Many liken its emotional build and impact to Samuel Barber’s "Adagio For Strings."

James Weldon Johnson

James Weldon Johnson was a poet and novelist who became a civil rights leader in the early part of the twentieth century, when it was not popular to imagine that black Americans could enjoy a future of opportunity and freedom. Born in 1871, he was raised in Florida by parents who had lived in the North and had never been enslaved. His parents helped formulate his beliefs and exposed Johnson to culture, arts, literature and a secure economic surrounding.

In 1895, Johnson founded the first black-oriented newspaper in the US, the Daily American. In his diverse career, in 1898 he became the first black lawyer admitted to the Florida Bar since Reconstruction, worked as a teacher, a diplomat in Latin America, and even wrote songs for Tin Pan Alley.

Perhaps Johnson’s best-known contribution to the cause of justice and equality are the lyrics he wrote to Lift Every Voice and Sing, a ringing tribute to the tribulations and triumphs of black Americans, which his brother Rosamond set to music. It was later adopted by the NAACP and became known as "The Negro National Anthem."

Watch as audience members are invited to stand and join in the singing of this powerful, uplifting anthem at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration Concert, accompanied by The Cleveland Orchestra, soloist Ryan Speedo Green, and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration Chorus.