King’s dream fuses with Beethoven for heart-warming Sinfonietta event

Tue Jan 19, 2010 at 8:09 pm

By Dennis Polkow

“Dr. King would have been so proud to be with us tonight and see diversity in action,” intoned Chicago Sinfonietta founder and music director Paul Freeman to great applause and cheers on Martin Luther King Jr’s national holiday.

A man who knew the slain civil rights leader, Freeman and the Chicago Sinfonietta he founded 23 seasons ago have been presenting festive Martin Luther King holiday programs for many years. But this year for the first time Freeman shared podium duties with another conductor, Kazem Abdullah, assistant and cover conductor for the Metropolitan Opera.

Freeman praised Abdullah’s talent in his introduction. For his part, the young conductor made a few remarks about Beethoven and drew an analogy between the Schiller poem that closes the Beethoven Ninth Symphony and Martin Luther King’s “dream” speech. Yet it was Abdullah’s music-making that ended up making the case far more eloquently.

This was particularly evident in the extraordinary diversity that was represented both by the Sinfonietta itself — which prides itself as being one of the most diverse orchestras in the country — and the Northwestern University Chorus, similarly a rainbow of ethnicities. To see and hear such a coalition singing about the unity of humanity and freude (joy) in such riveting harmony on a national holiday devoted to a man who gave his life for the same cause was a heartwarming experience.

There were issues of balance, given that the 150-member chorus outnumbered the Sinfonietta by nearly four to one, and some of the vocal quartet were lost in the tumult. There was also little contrast between the movements in terms of dynamics and tempos, including a very fast Adagio. The tempos that Abdullah chose were at times virtually breakneck, and would have posed a challenge to the most seasoned professional orchestra. But these are quibbles, especially given the extraordinary effect and the sense of occasion.

Freeman himself conducted the first half of the program with a contemplative account of Fauré’s Pavane that was almost caressing in its comfort. He also led Four Negro Spirituals by African-American composer and arranger Hale Smith, who passed away two months ago and who, along with King, was being memorialized in these performances.

Members of the Cerqua Rivera Dance Theatre provided dance interpolations of the Spirituals with varying degrees of relevance to the music being heard, which was sung alternately by soprano Jonita Lattimore and contralto Gwendolyn Brown, each milking gorgeous sound, sometimes at the expense of clear diction.

Posted in Performances

Leave a Comment