Choir to voice the words of Birmingham's 'unsung'
Yotam Haber plays the piano while working on the finishing touches of his composition "A More Convenient Season" in his office at the University of New Orleans on Thursday, Sept. 5, 2013. Rather than focus in a literal way on the Sept. 15, 1963, Ku Klux Klan bombing that killed four little black girls on their way to Sunday school, the Dutch-born composer sought to evoke Birmingham's role in the larger civil rights struggle. "I'm not telling Birmingham her own story," says Haber, whose work is scheduled to premiere at the University of Alabama on Sept. 21, 2013. "She knows it far better than I will ever be able to tell it." (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Seeking inspiration for a musical commission to mark the 50th anniversary of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, composer Yotam Haber turned to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute's Oral History Project. Combing through the files in the Alabama city, he came across a 1998 interview with Henrietta Tripp.
He was struck by the former hairdresser's description of hearing the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. speak at the church in the spring of 1963, several months before the horrible blast.
"That was hallelujah time," she told the interviewer. "And he was talking about Birmingham being one of the hardest cities to crack. It was the hardest city to crack."
When a chorus of 100 voices performs Haber's piece later this month, Tripp's words will soar along with those of King and others — famous and unsung — who fought to defeat Jim Crow.
"My little words? My little part is so minute in comparison to these great people," the 77-year-old retired clerk, who became one of the first African-Americans hired by the city police department, said recently. How, she wonders, are "my words going to fit in?"
Perfectly, says Haber.
Rather than focus in a literal way on the Sept. 15, 1963, Ku Klux Klan bombing that killed four black girls during Sunday services, the Dutch-born composer sought to evoke Birmingham's role in the larger struggle.
"I'm not telling Birmingham her own story," says Haber, whose work the Alabama Symphony will premiere on Sept. 21. "She knows it far better than I will ever be able to tell it."
Yotam Haber works out the finishing touches of his composition "A More Convenient Season" in his office at the University of New Orleans on Thursday, Sept. 5, 2013. "For this piece to resonate out with others, there needs to be a larger message here," says Haber, whose family's losses during the Nazi Holocaust informed his work. "And the message is that we cannot sit idly by when we see injustice. We need to act." (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
The composition is titled "A More Convenient Season," a phrase borrowed from King's famous "Letter From a Birmingham Jail."
Arrested in April 1963 on a charge of parading without a permit, King drafted the open letter to fellow clergy who had condemned his activities as "unwise and untimely." King declared that, more dangerous than a Klansman was the white moderate who "paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who ... constantly advises the Negro to wait for a 'more convenient season.'"
Haber's piece — which he says "falls somewhere between an oratorio and an opera" — is divided into three movements. Before the choir gets to King's letter, the audience will hear the words and, through archival recordings, voices of ordinary foot soldiers whose names are likely unknown to them.