Chicago Sinfonietta’s King Day concert is a rousing classical and gospel showcase

Tue Jan 17, 2023 at 4:31 pm

By John Y. Lawrence

Kathryn Bostic, Artist in Residence, and Mei-Ann Chen, Music Director, at Chicago Sinfonietta’s annual MLK Tribute Concert on Monday at Symphony Center. Photo: Kyle Flubacker

Martin Luther King Day in Chicago is also the occasion of the Chicago Sinfonietta’s MLK Tribute Concert at Symphony Center, a tradition stretching back almost 30 years. Monday’s edition consisted of an all-classical first half — three works by living black composers, one of them a premiere — and an all-gospel second half, for which the orchestra was joined by the Apostolic Church of God Sanctuary Choir.

In her opening remarks, music director Mei-Ann Chen touted the historic accomplishments of the three showcased composers: Carlos Simon is the first black composer-in-residence at the Kennedy Center; Valerie Coleman in 2019 became the first living black female composer to be performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra; and Chicago Sinfonietta’s Artist-in-Residence Kathryn Bostic is the first black composer to join the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Monday’s concert demonstrated the individuality of these three composers’ voices. But it also revealed a stylistic commonality — what an avant-gardist might condemn as “conservatism” but a populist would praise as “accessibility.” All three composers seek to embrace those elements that modernism attempted to purge from classical music—melody, consonance, deliberate evocations of popular music—without sounding simply derivative. Their respective pieces on Monday demonstrated differing degrees of success in meeting that shared goal.

Simon’s 2020 piece Fate Now Conquers was first up, its title inspired by a quotation from Homer’s Iliad scrawled in the personal journal of Ludwig van Beethoven. The second movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony served as the piece’s model.

Fate Now Conquers is dominated by a series of motoric ostinati running through the strings, punctuated by occasional stabs from the brass or syncopated layers from the woodwinds. While Simon’s score generates real vigor in sections, much of the piece feels like homogeneous busywork. A bittersweet cello solo, effectively played by principal cellist Ann Griffin, provided a welcome note of contrast near the piece’s end.

Coleman’s piece, performed next, was the third incarnation of her Umoja (the Swahili word for unity), previously written as a piece for women’s choir and later re-arranged for the Imani Winds, the quintet that Coleman founded. 

The version performed on Monday sounded so innately orchestral, a first-time listener would never guess Umoja’s choir and chamber lineage. The prior iterations are nigh undetectable in the current work. From the shimmers of the bowed mallet percussion at the opening to the unexpectedly intimate clarinet and bassoon duet emerging from cinematic strings at the conclusion, it is orchestrated so masterfully that it’s hard to imagine it was written first for any other medium. The performance was led by Assistant Conductor and Freeman Fellow Jherrard Hardeman, who gave wind soloists plenty of freedom while eliciting warm and flexible phrasing from the string section.

The third selection was the world premiere of Letters from Moral Courage by Kathryn Bostic, a succession of short episodes in various styles, from Coplandesque Americana to blues. In her introduction, Bostic compared the piece to a collage.

Each episode was well crafted and enjoyable on its own terms — with buoyant rhythms in the faster tutti sections and particularly melodious solos for bass clarinet and French horn. But without any formal logic connecting these episodes, the piece felt a tad overlong and shapeless.

Although the Simon and Bostic pieces weren’t the equal of Coleman’s, Chen and the Sinfonietta still showcased them to their best possible effect. They brought bite and urgency to Fate Now Conquers and individual color to each vignette in Letters from Moral Courage. The trumpets, in particular, were in full demand throughout the entire concert and carried their parts strongly.

The Chicago Sinfonietta on Monday, Martin Luther King Day, at Symphony Center. Photo: Kyle Flubacker

A broader cast of performers and conductors joined the Sinfonietta for the gospel second half. Marlene Allen (conducted by Gerald Raymond Nuckolls, Jr.) and Faith Howard (conducted by Brian Rice) provided high-octane solo vocals, with acrobatic melismas, in “Hand of the Lord” and “Prayer Will Change Things,” respectively.

These two songs, along with the choir’s rousing performance of Richard Smallwood’s “Total Praise,” were jolts of pure energy, greeted enthusiastically by an audience that became more demonstrative in the program’s second half. Multiple times, concertgoers burst into applause in the middle of Kiel Williams’s sterling high notes during his dynamically rich rendition of “I Bowed on My Knees and Cried ‘Holy’.”  

The gospel half’s only liability was the sound balance. Frequently, the Sinfonietta’s presence was superfluous. Everything except for the rip-roaring brass section was covered by the sound of amplified vocals, drums and electric bass. The rapping of Anthony “The Endurer” Briscoe on “Glory” was nearly incomprehensible in the Symphony Center Acoustic for a version of the Selma movie soundtrack’s flagship song, arranged and conducted for this occasion by Willetta Green-Johnson, with Travis Newsome singing.

The concert ended with Chen ardently leading the crowd in Nicholas Hersh’s arrangement of “We Shall Overcome,” with a verse of “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” interpolated, and the whole creation constantly ascending keys to generate a palpable excitement. 

Chicago Sinfonietta returns to Symphony Center 8 p.m. Saturday, March 18 and 7:30 p.m. Monday, March 20 with “Unapologetic,” a program featuring Tania León’s “Stride,” Florence Price’s Violin Concerto No. 2 with guest artist Rahel Barton Pine, and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade.”

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