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Concert review

Sinfonietta marks MLK birthday with a wide array of music

Tue Jan 18, 2022 at 11:05 am

By Katherine Buzard

Baritone Will Liverman performed with the Chicago Sinfonietta Monday night at Symphony Center. Photo: Jaclyn Simpson

The Chicago Sinfonietta presented its annual Martin Luther King tribute concert Monday night at Symphony Center, celebrating the music of what music director Mei-Ann Chen called “trailblazers in their field.” The program featured music by black female composers—Florence Price, Jessie Montgomery, and Kathryn Bostic—with a dash of Felix Mendelssohn for good measure.

The Sinfonietta welcomed soloist Will Liverman, fresh from his star turn opening the Metropolitan Opera’s 2021-22 season in Terrence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones (which comes to Lyric Opera in March). The baritone  sang two songs by Price and three selections from Mendelssohn’s Elijah while also serving as the narrator in Bostic’s symphony.

The program began with Price’s tone poem Ethiopia’s Shadow in America, a piece that evokes the arrival of Africans in America and their journey of becoming people of this land. The first movement was weighty and somber, the ensuing allegretto graceful and dance-like. The second movement, titled “His Resignation and Faith,” featured a gorgeous spiritual-like melody that was passed between the sections of the orchestra. This beautifully constructed movement offered the most touching moment of the whole program.

We were treated to more of Price’s oeuvre with two art songs, “Song to the Dark Virgin,” based on the poetry of Langston Hughes, and “Night.” Initially conceived for piano and voice, these songs were lushly orchestrated by Evan Kuhlmann, which, paired with Liverman’s commanding voice, put these intimate art songs on a Straussian scale. However, that sumptuous retooling lost perhaps some of the vocal nuance.

Liverman’s voice was warm, with rich low notes and an exciting ring to his upper range. His declamation, particularly in the selections from Mendelssohn’s Elijah, was emotionally charged, bringing the oratorio into the realm of opera. “Is not his Word Like a Fire” was especially electrifying. Yet while Liverman’s voice was so thrilling it could have peeled the paint off the back wall, his dramatic approach sacrificed a smooth legato and more varied and quiet dynamics.

In these vocal selections, the orchestra was precise, sensitive, and energetic in their accompaniment, Chen maintaining perfect balance between the players and the soloist at all times.

On the second half of the program were two contemporary pieces: Soul Force (The Dream Unfinished) by Jessie Montgomery and the premiere of Kathryn Bostic’s The Great Migration: A Symphony in Celebration of August Wilson. 

Assistant conductor Kyle Dickson led Montgomery’s one-movement work with confidence and precision. The piece begins with a flurry of various percussion sounds, including rattling chains, depicting “a voice that struggles to be heard beyond the shackles of oppression.” Out of this emerges a march that trods its way through various musical influences and off-kilter rhythms to a triumphant conclusion, punctuated by a startling gun-shot-like sound.

The symphony by Bostic, the Chicago Sinfonietta’s artist-in-residence, is an expansive celebration of his contribution to theater and literature, with each movement based on an excerpt or element of Wilson’s plays. Liverman was a capable and engaging narrator, reading these excerpts between movements.

The symphony draws on various divergent musical influences, from jazz to the blues to Spanish rhythms, which appear in rapid succession. This made for some slightly awkward shifts in meter, tempo, and affect, which at times came across as tentative or unsettled. Bostic packs many interesting ideas into a relatively short space, yet the that makes a unifying musical thread hard to follow, in an effort to capture Wilson’s various characters “and the divergent paths they have taken to forge their lives and self-awakening,” as the composer states.

Bostic’s writing was most successful when she remained in one affect for an extended period of time. For example, the second movement, “The Hill Illuminated,” was tranquil yet mysterious, evoking Vaughan Williams in its pastoral expansiveness. Similarly, the fourth movement, “The Oracle of Aunt Ester,” featured an extended unaccompanied violin solo reminiscent of The Lark Ascending, played expressively by concertmaster Paul Zafer. Ultimately, if Bostic’s symphony if a bit unfocused, it contains many great ideas and would likely benefit from some honing and revision.

Throughout the concert, Chen’s demonstrative and distinctive gestural style was powerful and musical. At times, she was so animated she was practically jumping on the podium, and at one point during some particularly angular gestures in Bostic’s symphony, she lost her baton to the cello section. 

Equally engaging was her communication with the audience between pieces. She encouraged the audience to clap between movements if the spirit moved them (they did), and she was an effective PR advocate for her colleagues, eking out hearty applause from the smaller-than-usual audience.

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