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New England Conservatory’s ‘Embracing Coretta’ pays tribute to alumna Coretta Scott King

Celina Colby
Celina Colby is an arts and travel reporter with a fondness for Russian novels.... VIEW BIO
New England Conservatory’s ‘Embracing Coretta’ pays tribute to alumna Coretta Scott King
Coretta Scott King, 1964, PHOTO: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

In commemoration of the 70th anniversary of Coretta Scott King’s graduation from New England Conservatory, the college will host “Embracing Coretta,” a concert in her honor. In addition to diverse programming including spiritual arrangements and pieces dear to King, audiences will hear the world premiere of a composition by J. Jakari Rush inspired by the Kings’ love story.

Pianist, NEC faculty and program curator Timothy Steele. PHOTO: COURTESY NEC

Coretta Scott King was an accomplished singer who studied at NEC in the early 1950s. It was during this period that she met and married Martin Luther King Jr., who was studying at Boston University. Singing became an important part of King’s activist work: She would often organize and perform at freedom concerts that included songs, poetry and lectures in support of the civil rights movement.

More recently, local street artists ProBlak and GoFive memorialize this Boston romance in the mural “Roxbury Love Story” at the Melnea Residence apartment complex.

Timothy Steele, a pianist and NEC faculty member in opera studies, put together “Embracing Coretta” as a sabbatical project. Steele designed the show to be part music, featuring a robust program of Black composers and performers, and part narration that explains what Coretta’s life and time in Boston was like.

Singer Daon Drisdom. PHOTO: ANDREW HURLBUT/NEC

“I hope (audiences) appreciate and learn and are excited to go hear more music by some of these composers,” says Steele. “I hope they learn something about Coretta’s life, and I hope they get more of a sense of who Coretta is as a person.”

“Dear Coretta,” Rush’s world premiere composition, is based on a love letter Martin wrote to Coretta during this period. The program will also include a piece by Cuban composer Amadeo Roldan that King sang on the very same Jordan Hall stage 70 years ago. Black artists are at the center of the concert, and the program includes singers Sarah Joyce Cooper, Neil Nelson, Melissa Joseph and Daon Drisdom.

Singer Sarah Joyce Cooper PHOTO: DAN BUSLER

Drisdom is a musician, music educator and NEC alumnus who looks forward to celebrating Black composers as well as King. “We have studied the same composers — I call them Bach and the boys, you know, Bach, Mozart Handel, Mendelssohn,” says Drisdom. “But the music that has come out of the Black body, the Black soul, the Black spirit, is just as reputable.”

Singer Melissa Joseph PHOTO: COURTESY NEC

“Embracing Coretta” will be presented on Monday, Oct. 30 at 7:30 p.m. at Jordan Hall. Admission is free but seats must be reserved in advance on the NEC website. NEC’s Office of Cultural Equity and Belonging and Embrace Boston both supported the program. In the hour before the concert, NEC representatives will be leading short guided walking tours to important sites for the Kings around the theater, including where Dr. King picked up Coretta for their first date and the apartment building they later lived in together.

During his time at the conservatory, Drisdom participated in the annual Coretta Scott King Tribute Concert hosted by the Black Student Union. At the upcoming concert, one of the pieces  he will perform is Rush’s “Dear Coretta” piece.

“I have sung to Coretta and for Coretta many times at this point, but this makes it all the more personal,” says Drisdom. “Because I get to sing words to her that she read. It’s absolutely beautiful.”