Chicago Sinfonietta Tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr Review-a never-to-be-forgotten event

On Martin Luther King Day, Monday, January 18, 2016, the Chicago Sinfonietta hosted an absolutely spectacular program of music in honor of the slain civil rights leader and national icon at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Avenue, in Chicago. The Sinfonietta is the most ethnically diverse orchestra in America, and under the direction of Conductor Mei-Ann Chen, hosts one of the most innovative series of programs, so it is no surprise that the annual tribute to Dr. King was both a cultural and musical tribute of extraordinary scope and raw power.

MeIAnn Chen conducts the Sinfonietta;photo by Chris Ocken

The concert showcased the Chicago premieres of two recent works, both of which bear an important relationship to the State where King lived and worked. "The Bass Whisperer: Concerto for Electric Bass and Orchestra”, was written by 5-time Grammy award winner Victor Wooten along with Conni Ellisor, arranger and composer, whose work,it has been said, "knows no stylistic boundaries". The timeless yet modern composition , composed on  commission from the City of Nashville, featured guest performer Wooten, a musician, songwriter, producer and author whose genres include jazz fusion, funk, funk rock and hip hop; he wailed on electric bass.

Victor Wooten with electric bass; photo by Steve Parker

Also on the bill was  “Fourth Chickasaw Variations”, written by Michael Gandolfi, an American composer of contemporary classical music who chairs the Composition Department at The New England Conservatory, from which Maesrro Chen was the first graduate in it’s history to earn dual Master’s degrees, in violin and conducting.  The piece was apparently written about the Tennessee bluff that eventually became the city of Memphis, where King suffered his Passion. It was a haunting melody which combined jazz and blues with it's classical motif.  

Leading with Great Strength; photo by Chris Ocken

The beginning and end of the concert, however, consisted of gospel music, a feature of nearly every such program, as it was a special favorite of Dr. King, a form with which he identified and drew strength. Gospel music has also been associated with the Civil Rights movement itself, “by its message of comfort and triumph in the face of adversity”. Of course, it is especially appropriate music here for the South side of Chicago is where Gospel music was born.

The Chicago Sinfonietta Concert for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., photo by Chris Ocken

The concert opened with a work by Richard Smallwood, one of the most prolific and respected gospel composers and performers in the world, with 15 Grammy nominations and 6 Stellar Awards to his credit, and a man whose work has frequently been featured in this annual program. The piece, “Anthem of Praise”, was performed, as were the rest of the spirituals in the program, “It Ain’t Over”, “In Bright Mansions Above” and “Glory”, with the spectacular voices of the Apostolic Church of God Sanctuary Choir, joined by Vocal Soloists Jolande Freeman and Travis Newsome, led by Willetta Greene-Johnson, Choral Director and Guest Conductor, and Brian Rice, Minister of Music.

Maestro Chen; photo by Chris Ocken


The combination of Chicago’s fabulously impressive Sinfonietta, the virtuoso Wooten, the splendid, complex harmonies of the Choir, and the soaring operatic tones of the guest performers created a deeply moving program. Further,  the amazing spectacle  of the famed musical conductors leaning in and gesturing, bending forward and directing side by side, calling forth emotionally saturated performances absolutely rocked out the venerable old concert hall, and brought the audience to ecstatic applause again and again.

Victor Wooten; photo by Steve Parker

And the finale? It was heartfelt and joyous! At the behest and encouragement of Maestro Chen, herself beaming with joy, having repeatedly praised her colleagues and invited audience adulation, everybody in the packed house stood, joined hands, greeted each other and sang “We Shall Overcome, Someday”, before edging out into the frigid night.

The Maestro; photo by Chris Ocken

For information and tickets to other wonderful programs of the great Chicago Sinfonietta, go to


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