Okpebholo works stand out in mixed MusicNOW program

Wed Mar 16, 2022 at 10:48 am

By Katherine Buzard

Two works by Shawn Okpebholo were performed at the MusicNOW concert Monday night at the Harris Theater.

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s MusicNOW series returned Monday night for an evening of contemporary art song and opera featuring musicians from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, soprano Joelle Lamarre, and bass-baritone Damien Geter. 

Curated by CSO Mead composer-in-residence Jessie Montgomery, the concert featured the works of four composers, whom Montgomery interviewed on stage at the top of the show.

The program was built around Ayanna Woods’ forthcoming opera FORCE!, with three selections from the opera interspersed among the other offerings. The opera is about a group of black women waiting in the visitation room of a prison. However, something in the room is erasing their memories, leading them to forget how long they have been there or whom they have come to see. 

The first selection, “I Dream,” which was reprised at the end of the concert, begins sparsely with a single note on the piano followed by an unaccompanied vocal line sung by Lamarre. The pop-inflected melody stayed in Lamarre’s plush chest voice throughout, while pianist Mio Nakamura arpeggiated below. Though adequately depicting the dream-like state of the women in the waiting room, the result was a bit stagnant and formless. When bass-baritone Damien Geter was added to the texture, the two vocal parts did not cohere nor did the music suit their operatic voices.

“A Reckoning,” which came in the middle of the program, was the most effective excerpt from FORCE! Again, starting very low in Lamarre’s range, the piece showed off her stylistic flexibility and impressive belt by mixing elements of gospel, pop, and traditional Indian music. The varied stylistic influences and interesting accompanimental texture of violin, double bass, and percussion made this number one of the more compelling pieces on the program. Plus, Lamarre seemed to be more involved in the textual delivery. 

The meatiest part of the program was a 20-minute art song for soprano, flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano by Dale Trumbore called “The Gleam.” A setting of an expansive poem by Robin Myers, the song set out to reconcile the “vulgarity of what we encounter every day” and “the beauty that treads our daily lives,” as Trumbore wrote in her note. Written for soprano, flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano, the piece could have benefited from a conductor. The rhythmic difficulty and numerous moving parts forced Lamarre to pulse the beats with her body and violinist Yuan-Qing Yu to conduct occasionally with her bow. 

However, this complexity did not pay off. Though the instrumentalists are consummate musicians and acted as a stabilizing force, some of Lamarre’s entrances sounded tentative, and she was glued to the score throughout, making for an unengaging slog. Plus, with no supertitles and the house lights so low it was impossible to read the text. 

Since most of the vocal writing lay in the soprano’s middle-upper range, the words were not always discernible, which was unfortunate given that the composer had lauded the poem for its emotional power. The piece did give us an opportunity to hear Lamarre’s full operatic voice, which was rich and warm, with thrilling power in her upper register, though the unvaried vocal writing did not leave much room for color variation.

Geter then presented one of his own works, “The Bronze Legacy,” set to a poem by Harlem Renaissance poet Effie Lee Newsom. In his introduction, Geter explained that he wanted to explore the joyful aspects of his black identity while not focusing on the trauma that can come with it. Written for baritone, flute, piano, double bass, and percussion, the resulting song was immediately appealing for its use of jazz rhythms and instrumentation, their familiarity serving as a balm for the tired ear. 

Geter was an effective communicator, possessing a powerful voice that he could still pull back into moments of refreshing tenderness. Fortunately, before Geter’s piece, an outspoken patron had called for the house lights to be brought up so the audience could read the texts, though Geter’s diction was clear and the tessitura low enough that this time it proved unnecessary.

The most successful items on the program were by Chicago-based composer Shawn Okpebholo. First was Ballad of Birmingham, a narrative account of the tragic 1963 16th Street Baptist Church bombing from the perspective of a young girl and her mother. The piece for baritone, piano, and clarinet opens with an evocative clarinet solo, played with great fluency and sensitivity by Wagner Campos, which turns into a funeral march as the girl in the narrative asks her mother if she can go to a civil rights protest. Her mother says it’s too dangerous and that she should go to church where she’ll be safe. After a cacophonous climax, a hauntingly beautiful Debussyian piano interlude follows as the mother wades through the rubble and broken glass looking for her daughter.

Even more powerful was “Oh, Glory,” a spiritual Okpebholo reimagined from the perspective of an enslaved mother who yearns for the day when she will be reunited in heaven with her child who was taken and sold away. After a luminous opening violin solo by Yu, Lamarre again stunned with her stylistic flexibility and vocal agility as she traversed her entire range with a mix of humming, belting, crooning, and operatic outbursts. In her element, Lamarre gave a much more engaging performance, even eliciting supportive shouts from the audience as she sang. This spiritual, though ornamented, served as a reminder that sometimes simpler is better, particularly when it comes to the human voice.

The next CSO MusicNOW concert on May 23 will feature a new work by Mead composer-in-residence Jessie Montgomery. cso.org

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