Abels: A Message of Hope & Optimism

“When I first heard Michael Abels’ Dance for Martin’s Dream shortly after its premiere, I was immediately struck by Michael’s choice to make it a celebratory work (as opposed to most tributes, which are elegiac). While it is often performed around MLK Day or Black History Month, I think it has a more universal ‘message’ of hope and optimism. It has the ingredients conductors want: craft, form, energy, and audience-, as well as, player-appeal.”

As the Society of Musical Arts Orchestra (Maplewood, NJ) prepares for its Sunday, June 4 performance of Dance for Martin’s Dream, 4 pm at the Maplewood Middle School (7 Burnett Street, Maplewood, NJ) music director Stephen Culberton (and Subito Music Founder and President) sums up why he’s “been a big fan of Michael’s music.” Co-commissioned by the Houston and Nashville Symphonies, the single-movement, 13-minute work was written as an orchestral homage to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dance for Martin’s Dream received a partial premiere in Houston in June 1997 (conducted by Stephen Stein), followed by Nashville’s premiere of the complete version in January 1998 conducted by Karen Deal.

Stephen Culbertson

Abels shares some insight into his popular work. “It’s an intimidating assignment to write a piece on the legacy of Dr. King. The impact is too great to be contained in a single-movement work. I was a toddler when MLK’s historic speeches were being delivered, yet others are still alive who walked side-by-side with him. So I chose to write a piece that expresses the effect Dr. King’s courage has had on my life. His work was a generous gift that raised the limit of possibility for my generation of Americans. To express that, Dance for Martin’s Dream begins with a mournful elegy, but then takes off on a rhythmic rhapsody of up tempo American-identified genres. Though the music is energetic, there are still stressful, dissonant passages, but always with a drive toward positive resolution.

“As accompaniment to the most powerful melody, the score calls for some vocal beat-boxing about mid-way through. It’s a spoken, nonsense phrase designed to sound like people chanting as they would at a demonstration or protest march. When I wrote it, I thought the beat-boxing would be easy for the musicians — but often it turns out to be more challenging than the actual music! So I appreciate the orchestra’s willingness to tackle this special technique whenever this piece is performed. There’s nothing more powerful than people chanting together, and you’ll feel that in the final crescendo at the end.

“Dance For Martin’s Dream was written in 1996-97, during a great economic expansion and a period of relative peace and prosperity. If I were to write a piece on Dr. King’s legacy today, I’m sorry to say it would be much darker. But I look forward to a day when this piece feels as accurate to me as it felt then; and, I do believe it’s important to celebrate progress as much as we confront setbacks. This piece celebrates.”