These are challenging times for inclusion. But Chicago Sinfonietta’s MLK TRIBUTE CONCERT at Chicago’s Symphony Center on January 16th was a reminder that gathering for music under any circumstances can lead to a very good time. From start to finish, multi-cultural exuberance permeated the historically white confines of Orchestra Hall.
Chicago Sinfonietta’s vision
Conductor Paul Freeman, Chicago Sinfonietta’s black founder who passed away in 2015, envisioned an orchestra that modeled and promoted diversity. That mission got a boost when the symphony received a 2016 McArthur Foundation Award for Creative and Effective Institutions. Under the baton of its current Music Director, Mei-Ann Chen, the concert brought Chicago Sinfonietta together with many organizations – Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestras, Merit School of Music, The People’s Music School and Roosevelt University Conservatory Choirs and Alumni Chorus – to honor Dr. Martin Luther King.
MLK Tribute Concert’s real connection
The program notes tried a little too hard to connect the selected works by white male European composers to the themes of Martin Luther King Day. The real connection lies in the subtitle, “Hand in Hand. Side by Side.” This was a night to celebrate the mastery of a complex art form. It was also a chance for audience members of all ages, races and levels of music literacy to sit side by side.
A musical village
NBC’s Art Norman introduced the evening with a broadcaster’s bravado. Chen followed, remarking that it takes a village to raise an orchestra -- and it takes a village to raise an individual musician. Thus, she asked parents and teachers and other such villagers to stand for recognition. The petite, animated Taiwan-born conductor moved on to lead professional and student musicians in Vaughan Williams’ “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis.” Clearly, Chen relished the chance to showcase emerging talent alongside the orchestra’s accomplished members.
Next, the program paused for a notable interlude: Chicago’s first Youth Poet Laureate E’mon Lauren presented a poem that was worlds apart from rarified string instruments. “I feel like scratched vinyl on your wall,” read Lauren who uses poetry to express her experiences as a woman from the ‘hood.
Selections from Vivaldi’s “Concerto for 4 Violins” featured violin soloists Maria Arrua, Tara Lynn Ramsey, Tomer Marcus and Teddy Wiggins. The concert’s highlight was this season’s Assistant Conductor Kalena Bovell leading the orchestra in two of Dvorak’s “Slavonic Dances.” Casting no doubt that she was in full command, the young black woman conducted with innate confidence and charisma.
Closing the program was Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” accompanied by vocal soloists Kimberly Gunderson, Louise Rogan, Jared Esguerra, Nicholas Davis and Roosevelt University’s choral groups. After that rousing work, it didn’t take much to get every single voice, professional and otherwise, to join in “We Shall Overcome.” The civil rights anthem turned Orchestra Hall into a rousing and inclusive village.
For more information about Chicago Sinfonietta and their upcoming programs, visit the Chicago Sinfonietta website.
About the Author
Susan Lieberman is a playwright, journalist and script consultant who commits most of her waking hours to Chicago theatre. Her Jeff-winning play Arrangement for Two Violas will be published by Chicago Dramaworks in spring 2017.