Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. remarked to a young conductor on his way to guest conduct the Atlanta Symphony that symphony orchestras were “The last bastion of elitism. Glory, Hallelujah”. The Chicago Sinfonietta, founded in 1987 by Maestro Paul Freeman has put paid to that notion since it’s inception- it is the most diverse orchestra in the world. From January 14-16, 2017, the Sinfonietta celebrated Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and promoted it’s own vision of access and inclusion in presenting 3 remarkable concerts bringing together young musicians from every corner of Chicago to play, sing and conduct along with the Orchestra.
Participating organizations included Roosevelt University Conservatory Choir, Civic Orchestra of Chicago, The People’s Music School, Merit School of Music and Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra, at 3 venues: The North Shore Center for The Performing Arts, Skokie, Wentz Concert Hall, Naperville, and Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave, Chicago.
The program began with a piece of original poetry, “Spoken Word”, recited by the author, E’mon Lauren. It was a vibrant, clever and strong message well enunciated and appropriate to the day.
The first piece on the program was “Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis”, by British composer Vaughan Williams, 1910. Like much of Williams’ compositions, this work for string orchestra was inspired by the music of the English Renaissance; Tallis is a giant in the field of sacred choral music. For 3 years in a row, 2014-2016, the work was voted into 3rd place on the “Hall of Fame” of UK station “Classic FM” by its listeners. It has a rising organ-like melody, with the entire theme repeated thrice in the work.
Next on the program was “Concerto for Four Violins and Cello in B minor, Op. 3,No. 10, by Antonio Vivaldi, 1711, featuring Violin Soloists Maria Arrua, Tara Lynn Ramsey, Tomer Marcus and Teddy Wiggins. The piece added to Vivaldi’s reputation when pubished early in his career. The violins are set off against the orchestra, and here the entire piece requires extreme virtuosity. The young vioinists did a commendable job rendering the beauty of the piece.
After the intermission, Guest Conductor Kalena Bovell, 2016-2017 Chicago Sinfonietta Assistant Conductor made her debut, leading the Orchestra in selections from “Slavonic Dances”, Opus 46, No. 2 and Opus 72, No. 7 by Antonin Dvorak, 1878 and 1886. The pieces are lively, memorable and based firmly in characteristic national folk dances. Bovell did a wonderful job conducting this winning group; she kept a firm hand on the beat, using consistent gestures and in obvious mastery of the material.
Next the audience heard Ludwig van Beethoven’s legendary “Ode to Joy’ from Symphony No. 9 in D minor, known as the “Choral”, Op. 125, 1824. It is everywhere critically lauded as not only one of Beethovens greatest works, but as “one of the greatest compositions in the Western musical canon”. The guest artists, Kimberley Gunderson,( soprano), Louise Rogan, (mezzo-soprano), Jared Esguerra, (tenor), Nicholas Davis, (baritone), and the Roosevelt University Conservatory Choir and Alumni Chorus directed by Dr. Cheryl Frazes Hill gave their all to this exceptional piece of inspirational music.
The evening would not have been complete without it’s encore- 4 rousing hand-held choruses of “We Shall Overcome”, the great protest song by Pete Seeger, 1947, which became the unofficial anthem of the civil right’s movement. As always, Conductor Mei-Ann Chen was a unifying and sustaining presence on the stage, encouraging, explicating, and engaging with all. Before the end, the audience was encouraged to wroite their greatest hopes and wishes on cards and wave them aloft.
Chicagoans should take note that our city led the nation in the celebration of the birthday of this great national hero; only 2 other figures have national holidays in the U.S. honoring them: George Washington and Christopher Columbus.
For more information about and tickets to the other great programs by the Chicago Sinfonietta, go to the Chicago Sinfonietta website
All photos by Chris Ocken