Gathered around his family’s piano, singing songs of the ’60s that called for unity and change, a young Richard Zielinski learned firsthand the love and acceptance Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached.

Everyone, no matter their race, sexual orientation or religion, was welcome in the Zielinski house in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. His parents, Betty and Dick Zielinski, embodied King’s mission and they didn’t need lectures, worksheets or sermons to pass that onto their children. It was a lesson learned by example.

“I saw my parents embrace every walk of life in this small blue collar town,” says Richard (“Dr. Z” to anyone who’s met him), now music and artistic director of the Norman Philharmonic and director of OU Choral Activities. “Everyone was welcome in this tiny little house of ours. It was never about talking about racial issues; it was about taking care of each other.”

In the upcoming concert, Richard hopes to recreate a little bit of that magic he felt surrounded by family and friends singing together inside his childhood home. He invites the University of Oklahoma and Norman communities to join him at 3 p.m. on Monday, Jan. 20, for the MLK Celebration Concert and Meet the Composer event in which the audience will take part in a singalong of ’60s civil rights songs and popular music.

The event also features guest speakers and spotlights the Norman Philharmonic with the Richard Zielinski Singers, and the OU combined choirs, and explores the music America composer, Rosephanye Dunn Powell, creator of the four-movement sacred work that harkens to King himself: “The Cry of Jeremiah.”

Rosephanye, the Meet the Composer spotlighted artist, chairs the voice program at Auburn University in Auburn, Alabama, and has been hailed as one of America’s premier composers of choral music. Rosephanye says music provides a perfect vehicle to come together and honor King’s legacy.

“Generally, in music performance settings, there’s more focus on what we have in common, rather than our differences,” she says. “As we work together as a unit to harmonize, blend and share a common message, there’s a sense of unity and a desire to build up one another. When we perform in ensembles, we find our attitudes to be less self-centered and more others-centered since we are working toward a common goal.”

‘The Cry of Jeremiah’

In “The Cry of Jeremiah,” Rosephanye draws parallels to King and Jeremiah, one of the major prophets of the Hebrew Bible often referred to as the “weeping prophet.”

“Martin Luther King, as a leader in the civil rights movement, was called to be a type of prophet for the African American community,” she explains. “During his time of leadership, Dr. King faced many trials and difficulties for which he cried out to God—in frustration, loneliness, anger, disappointment and fatigue. Dr. King’s messages to his people addressed the dark days they would face. Like Jeremiah, Dr. King had many enemies who wanted to destroy and kill him, including those in the government. Like Jeremiah, he was jailed, experiencing loneliness and isolation. Like Jeremiah, he resisted violence when his enemies attacked him.”

“I imagine that Dr. King questioned his calling to lead the people. Yet, like Jeremiah, one hears in Dr. King’s sermons and reads in his letters the voice of hope that there will be victory for the cause. Like Jeremiah, Martin Luther King met an untimely death at the hands of a murderer.  Both, in their time with God, had hope because they had seen through spiritual eyes the ‘Promised Land.’ They resolved that they would do the will of God and serve the people regardless of what they faced, including death.”

As the audience members experience “The Cry of Jeremiah,” Rosephanye says they should imagine themselves in the place of Jeremiah, or King, to feel the struggle and anguish that great leaders experience as they lead.

“So often we admire their charisma, courage and speaking abilities; however, we’re unaware of what their lives are like when they’re not in the public eye,” she says. “I want the audience to experience the inner struggles—the pain, the doubt, the questions and the isolation—that come with leadership in difficult times. I want the audience to connect their own experiences with those of Martin Luther King and Jeremiah.”

‘The Time Is Always Right …’

When asked why he chooses to orchestrate the MLK Celebration each year (it’s now in its second year), Richard looks to one local figure in particular as the cause of his inspiration: George Henderson, a retired OU professor and local and regional racial equality advocate who launched OU’s first black student association.

Richard hopes more in the community, especially OU’s young minds, turn out to the event and instill in themselves the words of King. One quote from King is always at the ready with him: “The time is always right to do what is right.”

“It’s all about virtue—it’s all about doing the right thing,” he says. “When someone’s down, you pick them up. When someone needs help, you guide them.” 

If You Go:

What: MLK Celebration Concert and Meet the Composer

When: 3 p.m. Monday, Jan. 20, Martin Luther King Jr. Day

Where: Sharp Hall, inside the University of Oklahoma’s Catlett Music Center, 500 W. Boyd St., Norman

Tickets: Purchase in advance for best prices by phone at 325.4101 or in person through the OU Fine Arts Box Office, located in Catlett Music Center. Advance purchase tickets are $5 for students and $9 adults; $10 at the door.

Student event: More than 2,000 fourth- and fifth-graders from Norman also will have the chance to experience the music when the Norman Philharmonic, in collaboration with the Norman Public Schools and Terra Verde Discovery School, presents two educational “Meet The Composer – Rosephanye Powell” concerts at 10 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 12, in Sharp Hall.

Learn more: NormanPhil.com