Lincoln tribute lost in morass of muddled music and multimedia

Sun Jun 14, 2009 at 2:56 am

By Dennis Polkow

Ramsey Lewis’s Proclamation of Hope: A Symphonic Poem by Ramsey Lewis was heard in its world premiere at Ravinia Friday night. Photo: Patrick Gipson/Ravinia Festival

“We all know that Ramsey Lewis is a great pianist,” proclaimed Ravinia CEO Welz Kauffman, introducing the celebrated jazzman Friday night at the North Shore festival.  “But like Lincoln,” added Kauffman, “he is also a great soul and spirit.” Lewis emerged to applause wearing a white tuxedo and holding a black drugstore top hat that he donned briefly before dropping it on the floor next to his grand piano.

  Welcome to as the piece was officially billed at Friday’s world premiere performance. 

 A meandering melody begins across the twenty-piece band ensemble billed as the Ramsey Lewis Freedom Collective that seems at odds with the stability reflected in video close-ups of the Lincoln Memorial followed by classic portraits of the 16th president.  The theme gives way to an extended flute cadenza with jazz backbeat while the images shift to etchings of Lincoln’s 1861 inauguration.  And so it goes.  Jazz solo follows jazz solo, images are shown that are meant to be representative of what the music is attempting to communicate. 

 After a pause, applause and a video screen informing us that we are entering a new movement, a train rhythm is evoked, as etchings and photographs of slaves and slave markets are shown.  When a female vocalist gets up, there is the hope that words may reveal what so far neither music nor slides have been able to. Yet only subtle humming emerges, sliding up and down various blues scales.  A lament might be the invocation, but the sound seems too joyous. 

 The third movement, the best of the evening, initially invokes the Emancipation Proclamation in up-tempo hard bop, the first use of a language that Lewis seems more at home with.  But wait!  There’s more slow syllabic singing and things dawdle down, because the video screens are only showing the musicians, with no cues as to what is being reflected in the music. 

 Lincoln’s death dominates the next tranquil section that closes out the first portion of the piece, but again, this is only evident because the video slides tell us.  Confusingly, we are shown a reward poster for John Wilkes Booth as the meandering melody that opened the piece—and which is musically meant to evoke Lincoln—reappears in fuller orchestration, dynamically enhanced and with extra percussion before the piece is interrupted with a grand cadence for an intermission. 

Photo: Patrick Gipson/Ravinia Festival

 Part Two follows much the same format as Part One, slides of Jim Crow laws and segregation accompanied by more vocalizing, although this time, accompanied by low brass and low woodwinds; and more jazz solos.  Here come some words from the vocalist: “wah, wah, wah, no, no, no, no,”  interrupted by a long drum solo.  No slides, though, until we hit the next section about blacks in the military with a military trumpet taking a jazz solo, and then a slide of the Klan burning a cross giving way to an image of Martin Luther King while a flugelhorn and flutes once again evoke the Lincoln theme. 

 The finale shows images of Lincoln’s second inauguration at a distance followed by images of Barack Obama’s January inauguration at a distance, before a Lincoln close-up makes a slow pan over to an Obama profile, which elicits applause, giving way to the Presidential Seal, all while a sentimental rendering of the Lincoln theme is recapitulated. 

 There’s still more: a fifteen-minute cadenza that includes a five-minute drum solo, more instrumental solos— including baritone sax for the first time of the evening—and an extended bass solo that gives way to a swing groove where the vocalist sums up the experience in more vocalizing: “du, du, du, hey.”  

 As a nine-movement “symphonic” work that lasts two hours, minus intermission, Proclamation of Hope is as long  as the longest Mahler and Bruckner symphonies, it is as if a string of unrelated and improvised tiny beads have been strung together. The work is endlessly episodic with little organic unity, since there is a modest amount of motivic material here in the first place, and that which there is (a single melodic theme and some recurring riffs and grooves) are simply restated but never developed in any way that one could call symphonic.

Even as a jazz suite based on an outside subject, the subject itself is unclear.  Is it Lincoln?  Slavery?  Racism?  Obama?  A lack of focus hangs over the piece like the evening haze at the first performance.  The audience is left to connect the dots to form some sort of coherent narrative, but the shapeless music and structure make that impossible even with constant visual prompting.  This listener couldn’t help but think of Max Roach’s Freedom Now suite, which traversed some of the same subject matter forty-five years ago, yet said so much more in a much shorter time and with far fewer resources.

Posted in Performances

3 Responses to “Lincoln tribute lost in morass of muddled music and multimedia”

  1. Posted Jun 15, 2009 at 12:33 pm by Ted M.

    Sad to see the critics didn’t get it. Their reviews don’t do the piece justice. Muddled? Meandering? That’s not what I experienced.

    Ramsey Lewis’ ‘Proclamation of Hope’ at Ravinia on 6/12/09 was an aural and visual account of history. It chronicled, in sound and vision, what started in A. Lincoln’s time and what was lived by African Americans from then up until present time.

    The piece was an astounding success. The performances that evening had so many “wow” moments, I can’t recall the last time I was so affected by live music.

    Excellent composition, arranging and performance. Wonderful visuals and research. Ramsey Lewis is one of the greats. A must see and must hear. It should be performed for the President in Washington.

  2. Posted Jun 15, 2009 at 7:04 pm by L'wood

    I’m curious why would a Jazz show be reviewed on this site? When looking through other reviews, there isn’t one Jazz review….maybe the reviewer should stick to something he may know about, classical music, and the structure of it which must make you happy?

  3. Posted Jun 15, 2009 at 10:43 pm by Dennis Polkow

    Ravinia commissioned a “symphonic” work and “jazz” is America’s classical music. For the specifics on this connection, see Also, see, where Ramsey himself weighs in on his own classical background.

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