The OKC Philharmonic pays tribute to a civil rights legend.
From classic compositions like Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 to Stravinsky’s groundbreaking The Rite of Spring, orchestral concerts by the Oklahoma City Philharmonic represent grand storytelling at its most symphonic — and beyond sonic spectacle for its own sake, some of those stories strive for social progress. Last year’s “Oklahoma Stories” put a deserved spotlight on Native American culture by exhibiting reverence for voices and communities that have pioneered and persevered. Now, the Philharmonic is ending its 2022-2023 season with an homage to Oklahoma civil rights icon Clara Luper.
In honor of what would have been her 100th birthday on May 3, the Philharmonic’s “Clara Luper Centennial” takes place May 13 at the Civic Center Music Hall. One of Oklahoma’s boldest civic shepherds, Luper is famed for her brave leadership during the 1958 sit-in movement, in which she conducted nonviolent protests at downtown lunch counters to help end segregation policies. Bringing Luper’s important legacy into an orchestral setting, and doing due diligence to ensure her story was told by the right community voices, was no easy feat, but one that the OKCPHIL’s music director and conductor Alexander Mickelthwate was adamant to undertake.
Luper’s story captivated and inspired Mickelthwate since he moved to Oklahoma City in 2018 and read the book Boom Town by Sam Anderson. Mickelthwate fostered a friendship with local rapper and entrepreneur Jabee Williams that enabled him to connect more deeply with his new hometown. Williams helped him meet Marilyn Luper, Clara’s daughter, whom Mickelthwate described as “meeting the presence of American history.”
“We talked about possible projects, and one was the realization that Clara Luper’s 100th birthday was May 3, 2023, so I decided to create a new show about her,” he said.
To start, Mickelthwate found a classically trained jazz composer, Hannibal Lokumbe, and between meetings with him and Marilyn, they developed and refined the handwritten score about Clara Luper and her legacy. “It took me a while to find the right composer, and it couldn’t be a white man or woman,” Mickelthwate said. “He’s a deep philosopher with a deep and rich soul and amazing personal stories of his great grandfather being on the Trail of Tears. Having him up here, connecting him to the sit-inners, it’s a big deal.”
The overarching sound for the show was inspired by Freedom Songs, empowering compositions by Black musicians created during the civil rights movement. The Freedom Movement, Mickelthwate said, “had several songs that rallied everybody up and got people excited, without scaring off the white people, to be able to sit in restaurants. So the whole movement is based on nonviolence and music, and this is flowing into that new composition.”
Striving for a symphony that tells a deeply personal, intimate story, Lokumbe penned three letters, designed as if Marilyn were writing them to her mother, that serve as the foundation for the concert’s three movements. “It’s totally Oklahoma, but it really transcends and becomes a national statement of freedom and perseverance,” said Mickelthwate, who is performing the show alongside The Ambassadors’ Concert Choir, a diverse group of musicians led by Dr. Sandra Thompson.
During the three movements, the concert will also feature a video produced in partnership with Prairie Surf Media and KOCO-TV, which features distinguished Oklahomans, such as Kristin Chenoweth and Mayor David Holt, rising in reverence for Luper. “The idea is to create a video where we stand consciously with Clara Luper, saying, ‘I’m standing for you, Clara Luper, and I’m standing for justice and perseverance,’” Mickelthwate said.
For him, the opportunity to bring Clara Luper’s story to a broader audience is the guiding light. Mickelthwate described her centennial concert as a coronation and remembrance. “As a foreigner, I came here and was totally blown away by her story, and that story needs to be told more nationwide and internationally,” Mickelthwate said. “I hope to be part of telling that story and bringing it out, coming toward each other with an open heart, and that’s what this piece is bringing — different ethnicities and cultures coming together for a historic moment in time.”
For more information or tickets to the May 13 performance, visit okcphil.org.