SuperPops concert honors Dunbar’s 150th birthday

Juneteenth at the Schuster stars Herbert Martin, Minnita Daniel Cox and gospel choir.

When he was a child in Birmingham, Alabama, Herbert Woodward Martin’s teacher required the class to memorize poems by the famous Black poet, Paul Laurence Dunbar.

With his horn-rimmed glasses, Martin looked so much like the textbook photos of Dunbar, many classmates figured they must be related. “They sent me home to ask Dunbar if he would please ask the teacher not to make us memorize any more of his poems!” Martin told his TEDXDayton audience in 2020. Since Dunbar lived from 1872 to 1906, Martin couldn’t possibly oblige. On the contrary, he was destined to become well-known as both a Dunbar expert and a performer who enthralls audiences with his captivating Dunbar poetry recitations.

Martin is one of the star attractions of the upcoming Dayton Performing Arts Alliance SuperPops concert. On Friday, June 17 and Saturday, June 18, the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra, under the leadership of artistic director and conductor Neal Gittleman, will present “Paul Laurence Dunbar: A Juneteenth Celebration.” The concert celebrates the sesquicentennial anniversary (150 years) of the first African-American poet to garner national critical acclaim.

Gittleman says this tribute to Dunbar will be a pops concert like no other. “Musically, the concert is more wide-ranging and eclectic than many pops concerts are,” he explains. “It’s got everything from ‘real classical music’ to early 20th-century Broadway to contemporary gospel. Like most pop concerts it’s filled with entertaining, inspiring, uplifting and toe-tapping music. But it also addresses serious and important issues, some of which are the subject of debate and controversy.”

Born in Dayton on June 27, 1872, to parents who were enslaved in Kentucky before the Civil War, Dunbar is best known for his dialect poems. Before his death on Feb. 9, 1906, at the age of 33, he also wrote standard poems, essays, novels, short stories, an opera libretto and four plays. His work often addressed the efforts of African-Americans to achieve equality in America and the political and social concerns of the day.

When he first heard African-American poet Margaret Walker recite Dunbar’s poems, Martin was hooked. “It was thrilling!” he says now. “I had taken a job with the University of Dayton without knowing Dunbar’s relationship with this city. I taught Black Literature to my students and Dunbar was in the text. I was amused by the humor in his dialect poems and slowly I began to develop a Dunbar program.”

Joining Gittleman and Martin on stage will be Minnita Daniel-Cox, a University of Dayton associate professor responsible for establishing the Dunbar Music Archive. “She knows more than anyone about musical settings of poetry by Paul Laurence Dunbar,” says GIttleman. Daniel-Cox will sing classical, spiritual and gospel numbers.

Gittleman is also excited about the “small hot choir” assembled and rehearsed by his friend William Henry Caldwell, a retired Central State University professor who is now resident conductor for the Cincinnati Symphony and the Cleveland Orchestra. “This concert is needed as we continue to work for diversity, inclusion, access, and equity in our society here in Dayton and around the country,” notes Caldwell.

Gittleman says there’s an old saying that music is a universal language, that it brings people together through its beauty, its emotion, its inspiration. ”That’s what I aimed for in choosing the music for our Dunbar/Juneteenth celebration,” he says. “It’s music inspired by the moving and rousing verses of Paul Laurence Dunbar. It’s music of sorrow and suffering. It’s music of joy and celebration, It’s music of spiritual redemption. It’s music of renewal, of commitment to a better, freer and more just world.”

Here are some highlights:

  • The concert will open with the hymn “Lift Ev-ry Voice and Sing.”
  • The DPO will perform “American Salute” by Morton Gould and “St. Gaudens” in Boston Common, the first movement of Charles Ives’ “Three Pieces in New England” which honors the famous 54th Massachusetts infantry, the first African-American regiment to fight in the Civil War.
  • Accompanied by the orchestra, Martin will recite several Dunbar poems and will also narrate Aaron Copland’s “A Lincoln Portrait.”
  • Daniel-Cox will sing an aria from Adolphus Hailstork’s one act opera “Common Ground” which includes several Dunbar poems.
  • The special chorus– made up of clergy, doctors, schools principals and music educators, and professional musicians– will sing selections ranging from “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” to Richard Smallwood’s “Total Praise.”

GIttleman says he believes and hopes that for those of us living in the 21st century the Juneteenth holiday represents an opportunity for America to celebrate emancipation in the fullest sense of the word– " freedom from bondage for those who had been enslaved; freedom from the evils of slaveholding for those who had been enslavers; freedom from slavery’s echoes for all of us who still live in its tragic shadow.”


What: “Paul Laurence Dunbar: A Juneteenth Celebration”

When: 8 p.m. Friday, June 17 and Saturday, June 18

Where: Schuster Performing Arts Center, Dayton

Tickets: $5 to $85 can be purchased by calling the box office at (937) 228-3630 or by visiting Senior, teacher and student discounts are available.

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