April 4, 1968, was a momentous day for Marcus Thompson. That was the day that the young violist made his debut in a recital at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.
It also turned out to be the day that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.
Thompson learned of King’s death not long before walking onstage. Needless to say, the news “was a very heavy burden to carry.” But it also marked the start of an illustrious career for the Juilliard-educated musician, who then, as now, was one of only a handful of African-Americans to find success in classical music.
It was with these twin legacies in mind — King’s and his own — that Thompson, now an Institute professor at MIT, designed the program for his upcoming recital at Kresge Auditorium on Feb. 24. The concert, which is part of MIT’s Sounding Series, presented by the MIT Center for Art, Science and Technology, and Music and Theater Arts, coincides with the 50th anniversary of King’s death as well as the founding of the MIT Black Students’ Union.
“Fifty years later it just seemed like it was appropriate to do something that called attention to [King’s] legacy,” says Thompson. “Especially ... since that legacy is being called into question by so many actions and attitudes.”
The program begins with Vivaldi’s “Concerto for Viola D’Amore and Strings.” It was the viola d’amore, a baroque string instrument that bears a symbol known as the “flaming sword of Islam” in place of f-holes, that inspired Thompson to include the composition. He hoped it would serve as a quiet rebuttal to the anti-Muslim sentiment that has lately become more vocal. “The Middle East has had a big cultural impact on the West,” says Thompson. “That legacy goes right through the cultural heart of this country.”
Next up is “Rothko Chapel,” an exquisite work by the 20th-century composer Morton Feldman. The piece features percussion and solo viola and will be conducted by MIT Kenan Sahin Distinguished Professor Evan Ziporyn. The MIT Chamber Chorus, meanwhile, is tasked with delivering the eerie, wordless harmony at the heart of Feldman’s most famous work.
The program also boasts the Boston premiere of Elena Ruehr’s “Shadow Light,” a concerto for solo viola and string quartet. Ruehr, a long time colleague of Thompson’s at MIT, composed “Shadow Light” a couple of years ago with her friend in mind.
“He has an amazing sense of how to make a line, and how to make something move,” says Ruehr. “And then his sound, which is kind of liquidy and dark and beautiful like a great violist’s usually is — but his is particularly beautiful. But he can bring this brightness, too, to what he does.”
“Shadow Light” begins with a minor triad, somber and deep. A raised fourth adds a touch of warmth to an ordinarily moody chord. “It’s a story about striving for light in the midst of darkness,” Ruehr says of the composition. “The whole piece is ... these long, romantic, nostalgic lines that are always pushing toward a height.”
The evening’s final installment, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Flos Campi,” features the MIT Chamber Chorus under the direction of MIT’s director of Choral Programs, William Cutter. Like the Feldman composition, “Flos Campi” contains a choral part without lyrics. It’s a pairing that Thompson hopes will spark reflection and healing. “Music is beyond words,” says Thompson. “The whole concept of community and being together is something that’s beyond what you can actually say.”
The choices reflect Thompson’s belief that music is “not intended to be something that can be used as a weapon or a polemic for one thing or another.” Instead, he says, “a concert is about bringing people together to share an experience and to contemplate what’s going on.”
Half a century after the death of King, Thompson still finds plenty to contemplate. “Attitudes have changed,” says Thompson, noting the inroads made by black politicians across government. “A year and a half ago, just being here in Massachusetts — I live here in the town of Newton, and we had a black mayor. And at the time we had a black governor, and the president was black.” But since then, “what we see is a kind of revelation of attitudes that have been suppressed and a reaction to the fact that blacks have made certain kinds of visibility and progress.”
And so Thompson looks to that early recital as a model for going forward. After 50 years, he knows there is value in doing the work, no matter what tragedies and triumphs unfold around him.