On Easter Sunday, 1939, Marian Anderson sang on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The concert lasted about half an hour, but the event was front-page news across the country, and more than 75,000 people from all over the States gathered on the Mall to hear it. It was the first time the Lincoln Memorial steps had been used as a place of peaceful protest. Anderson, a classically trained contralto, was singing there because she had been prohibited from singing at DAR Constitution Hall, because she was black — even though black singers had performed at the hall before, until 1935 brought a change in the contract.
The concert has attained iconic status without — like many iconic events — always being fully or accurately remembered. This year, the newly rechristened Washington Performing Arts marked it twice. On the actual anniversary, April 9, the organization hosted an event at the Lincoln Memorial. And on Saturday night, it pulled out the big guns to offer a full-scale concert at Constitution Hall itself. Jessye Norman hosted; the Winans brothers and Dionne Warwick sang; and Ysaye M. Barnwell wrote a new work for the occasion, a straightforward declamatory choral piece called “An Ave for Marian Anderson.” This was performed by an ensemble of 300 singers from choruses all over Washington, led by Stanley J. Thurston, filling the stage and the sides of the hall and resplendent in an array of concert robes and uniforms in a range of colors.
There can be something forced about commemorative performances, especially when the event being commemorated is at best hazily remembered (as some of the hyperbolic video tributes from current members of Congress demonstrated). But this one, after a slow start (Alyson Cambridge sounding overparted and slightly acidulous in “Pace, pace” from Verdi’s “Forza del destino,” with uncertain piano accompaniment by Kevin J. Miller), shifted into higher gear about halfway through — around the time that Soloman Howard, the promising young local bass, gave an ardent performance of “Il lacerato spirito” from Verdi’s “Simon Boccanegra,” connecting viscerally with the audience to the point of eliciting audible murmurs of approval with his final low note.
Even before that, there had been many points of interest in the evening, not least thanks to Murray Horwitz’s informative script, read by luminaries from MC Hammer to Wolf Blitzer. Billie Allen-Henderson, who attended the 1939 concert, gave perhaps the most memorable cameo, conveying her excitement not only about the concert (“It was cold!”) but about presenting Anderson with a bouquet of flowers at an event three years later, when she was 14, wearing her first evening dress. (When the audience laughed appreciatively, she expanded on the description: The dress was peach taffeta, and made for her by a neighbor.)
The 16-year-old singer Annisse Murillo showed spirit in “Mother to Son,” Undine Smith Moore’s setting of a poem by Langston Hughes. And the sign-language interpreters, Denise Sloan and Kevin Curry, were remarkable in their ability to translate song — with multiple vocal lines — into rhythmic, dovetailing, dance-like movement. But Howard’s performance marked the point at which the whole event moved past mere tribute into some genuinely stirring performances.
Marvin, Carvin and BeBe Winans harmonized over the chorus in “Let Us Break Bread Together.” Dionne Warwick offered presence and celebrity, if not much in the way of singing, and Candice Glover provided full-throttle vocal power in “Wade in the Water,” also with the chorus backing them up. Norman, having restrained herself to an emcee’s role all night, briefly showed her diva hand with an a capella rendition of “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” sung with plenty of heart and pizazz and even a few high notes. Norman knew Anderson and spoke of the older singer’s steady encouragement, and showing some of her own flair seemed a fitting tribute, before the audience joined in “My Country ’Tis of Thee” and the evening came to an end.
The event was the second part of a one-two punch from Washington Performing Arts this weekend to show a new face to Washington. On Friday, it unrolled a new look, new logo and programming for next season; on Saturday, it presented this event in association with the BET network and a number of other local organizations. Washington Performing Arts’s future, said its president, Jenny Bilfield, in her introductory remarks from the stage, is to serve as “a partner to a wide range of artists, and a catalyst for events in Washington” like this one. The point came across loud and clear, in words and actions, on Saturday night in that rarest of entities: a fitting commemoration.
Anderson herself did eventually perform at Constitution Hall, on more than one occasion, including her farewell tour in the 1960s. “When I finally sang there,” she wrote in her autobiography, according to Saturday’s script, “it was no different from other halls . . . just a beautiful place in which to give a concert.”
For more details about Washington Performing Arts’s new season, go to wpas.org.