This article is written by guest contributors Sonya Gray and Amelia Khalil
All photos by Derek Baker
The music, the Man—Marvin Gaye, the Prince of Motown, the lyrics, the passion, the compassion was ever present on June 16th as the National Symphony Orchestra (NSO) under the direction of Steven Reineke, a renowned conductor of popular music presented an ensemble of “Super Stars” in honor of the 50th anniversary of Marvin Gaye’s seminal album What’s Going On. The concert featured Marvin Gaye’s greatest hits performed by the brilliant and talented artists: Grammy-winning singer/songwriter and former member of Destiny’s Child Michelle Williams, three-time Tony and Grammy-nominated Broadway star Joshua Henry, internationally renowned artist and former member of Snarky Puppy Cory Henry, three-time Grammy nominated singer/songwriter Luke James, Grammy-nominated pop/soul artist Emily King, and Grammy-winning singer/songwriter Bilal.
The NSO- the conductor, the musicians one and all— embodied the spirit and intent of the legend of Marvin Gaye and his concept album, What’s Going On. The concert reflected the complexities of the album which was filled with messages from the lens of the complexity of the human experience from a Vietnam Veteran returning home. Each song flowed smoothly from one to the next telling the story, offering healing for humanity. They delivered a wonderful tribute to his vision and legacy. The orchestra and the contemporary musicians complimented one another song after song. The conductor displayed his own rhythm with each beat of the music and as the night went on so did the entire orchestra Vice President and Artistic Director of Social Impact at the Kennedy set the tone for the spoken word performances. Young poets and writers from Washington, D.C. organizations 826DC, Shout Mouse Press, and Words, Beats and Life shared their works focusing on the impact of gun violence on their lives.
Part One of the concert opened with the phenomenal hit, I Heard It Through the Grapevine. The audience was captivated by the energy and magic of the performers which featured Marvin and Tammi Terrell Duets. Joshua Henry brought the energy to a straight crescendo flowing into the timeless Marvin and Tammi Terrell duets performed by Michelle Williams and Luke James with the classic, Ain’t No Mountain High Enough to the closing culmination of all the performers on stage singing The performers paid tribute in their own unique and special way, Luke James-If This World were Mine; Bilal and Michelle Williams made us believe—Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing with their undeniable chemistry. Continuing the Marvin & Tammi duets were Emily King and Luke James with Your Precious Love and Emily King and Cory Henry with—You Are All I need To Get By.
Not to be outdone, Joshua Henry sang Marvin Gaye’s hit If I Could Build My Whole World Around You. The lyrics spoke for themselves.
Michelle Williams and Bilal
The energy in the Part Two of the show- What’s Going On Now?, transformed the Kennedy Center Concert Hall and focused the audience on the feelings Marvin Gaye expressed in his legendary album- poverty, policy brutality, love, hate, suffering, schools shootings, inflation, pollution, wars, and the cry for Peace—in other words, What’s Going on Now mirrors the suffering and injustices of today with those from 50 years ago when the album was released.
It has been documented that Marvin Gaye rarely performed What’s Going On in its entirety with one exception was at the Kennedy Center on May 1, 1972. This is now considered a historic concert event and we were able to relive this history for 2 hours and 15 minutes on June 16, 2023. The musicians performed songs from the What’s Going On album as written, a story, a narrative of the times as if Marvin Gaye was hovering overhead with the nod of appreciation for each performer: Michelle Williams, Emily King, Bilal, Cory Henry, Joshua Henry, Luke James each brought their unique voice to the closing number one by one with the talented NSO musicians displaying their respect for the legend, the lyrics, and the vision of Marvin Gaye for a better world for all.
The night was a musical tribute to the legacy of Marvin Gaye, an opportunity to dance, cry, reflect, heal (the music was so beautiful) and look ahead to the next 50 years– perhaps with promise and progress. The concert hall was filled with a kaleidoscope of people reflecting the peace and unity the Marvin Gaye songs embodied. The significance of his contributions was evident in the impact the performances had on the audience. Listening to What’s Going On album in the background as I write this review—I am clearly a fan. This is the music our parents grew up with and the music we shared with our children. My parents grew up with his music and so did I. My 22-year-old daughter, Netsanet can hear his influence with the hip-hop soul artists of her day. My 82-year-old mother admonished me for not including her on this adventure. She commented…” Marvin Gaye-who wouldn’t want to hear his music in concert.” The message was received. She was right every seat was filled for the performance.