Jamaica Plain’s Reverend Dr. Ray Hammond of Bethel AME Church will take part in the upcoming Cambridge Symphony Orchestra's (CSO) Heroes and Angels concert. Hammond will narrate the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in a piece by composer Joseph Schwantner called New Morning for the World (“Daybreak of Freedom”).
CSO Music Director Cynthia Woods selected New Morning for the World along with the other works on the program, Nan Schwartz’s trumpet tone poem Angels Among Us and Jean Sibelius’ stirring Symphony No. 5 because they complement each other in various ways and remind us that we are creative beings surrounded by natural beauty.
In advance of the March 17 concert, Reverend Dr. Ray Hammond answered a few questions for Jamaica Plain News about his involvement in the program.
Q: How did you get involved with the Cambridge Symphony Orchestra?
Hammond: In the first instance, my involvement was the result of an invitation that came to me through Eron Hackshaw, a trustee of the orchestra, a friend, and one of the parishioners at Bethel AME Church, where I serve as the senior pastor. Eron knew that I couldn't say no; first, because of my deep respect for him. Second, I love symphonic music. I'm a former pianist, violinist, and violist who played in my high school orchestra and continues to love all kinds of music, including European classical music. Finally, I'm a student and ardent admirer of Dr. King as a preacher and as an architect and spokesperson for a civil and human rights movement that changed our world.
Q: Have you ever worked with an orchestra before as a narrator?
Hammond: I had the privilege of working with the Boston Landmarks Orchestra in August 2007 as the narrator of Larry Thomas Bell's "David and 'Old Ironsides," the true story of David DeBias, an African-American from Beacon Hill's North Slope community of freemen, who joined the ship's crew at the age of 8 and saw action in the War of 1812. I also narrated Swanee Hunt's "Witness Cantata" as part of its performance by the Landmarks Orchestra.
Q: Why do you identify with Joseph Schwantner’s New Morning for the World?
Hammond: The music has a beautifully melodic, lyrical and soaring quality that is distinctly American and wonderfully hopeful. The words come from texts that I have heard and read and quoted time and again. I find those words resonating, not only in their historical context, but in our current atmosphere of polarization, incivility and resurgent hatred. Nonetheless, like the composer Schwantner and the "librettist" King I am ultimately hopeful.
Q: Do the excerpts pulled from Dr. Martin Luther King's speeches for this piece still resonate today?
Hammond: The short answer is that they all do. People are still tired of being humiliated and kicked about -- whether because of their race, class, gender, sexual identity, or immigration status -- and those people are rising up and making their voices heard. In our troubled country and world, now is the time to make the promise of democracy and justice (that rolls down like waters) a reality for all God's children. We are learning yet again as a nation that we cannot walk alone -- that our strength resides in our unity, not in our division.
We desperately need to hear and believe that truth pressed to the ground (even by thousands of lies and manipulated social media) will rise again; that the arc of the moral universe really does bend toward justice. We are still about the task of injecting meaning and dignity into the veins of civilization.
We still work on that (unfinished) dream of diminishing inequality, rising equity and opportunity, the abolishing of our inhumanity toward one another, and the flourishing of that human (Beloved) community. King drew from so many sources, added his own prophetic utterance, and bequeathed a legacy of truth that still challenges and encourages us.
The Cambridge Symphony Orchestra is presenting Heroes and Angels on Sunday, March 17 at 4 pm at MIT's Kresge Auditorium (48 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA 02139). For more info please visit cambridgesymphony.org.