"A Dream Unfolds: Tribute to Martin Luther King Jr." Review — Chicago Sinfonietta's Lyrical Approach to Cultural Diversity

What better way to cap off Martin Luther King Jr. Day and to celebrate cultural diversity than with a true variety show. “A Dream Unfolds: Tribune to Martin Luther King Jr.,” the 2011 edition of the Chicago Sinfonietta’s annual MLK Day concert, mixed classical and ragtime, symphonic music and voice, soloists and audience participation. It would be difficult to conceive of a more inclusive program or a more fitting tribute to Dr. King.

Maestro Paul Freeman

The concert was also in some ways a tribute — and part of a long, tender farewell — to Chicago Sinfonietta co-founder Paul Freeman. The 75-year-old maestro of the nation’s most diverse professional orchestra will retire at the end of the season. Freeman met King three weeks before his assassination, and when Freeman explained that he was a guest conductor at the Atlanta Symphony, King replied, “The last bastion of elitism. . . . Glory Hallelujah!”

Freeman’s legs now require the support of a cane, but his sense of purpose remains strong. As he instructed the audience to join in a rousing finale of We Shall Overcome, he exerted firm control with a swift flick of his pinkie finger: “This means zip it!”

MacArthur "genius" Reginald Robinson

Freeman is known as a champion of African-American classical composers, and the Chicago Sinfonietta highlights new and unfamiliar composers, reaching beyond the already popular jazz works by composers such as Duke Ellington and Wynton Marsalis. In the program’s opener, the overture from Theater Set for Orchestra, Freeman led the musicians through the edgy neo-classical notes of composer Ulysses Kay, moving from brassy fanfares to string runs. Freeman’s quiet command was well-suited to the next piece, Lyric for Strings, a subtle single-movement composition with shifting tonalities by composer George Walker.

Guest conductor Leslie B. Dunner

Guest conductor Leslie B. Dunner picked up the baton for Concerto for a Genius, featuring Chicago composer and pianist Reginald Robinson, the 2004 recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius” award who inspired the title of the piece. The composition capitalizes on Robinson’s superb reinvention of ragtime, mixing in jazz and classical themes. The four movements that make up Concerto for a Genius are reworkings by an early mentor of Robinson’s, trumpeter and composer Orbert David, of solo piano pieces written by Robinson. If that sounds overly complicated, it reflects a central problem of the piece: the volume of the orchestra frequently overwhelmed Robinson’s playing, which shone through on a solo encore.

Tenor Chauncey Packer

The strength of the orchestra under Dunner’s command was a fine match for the powerful singing in the final offering, a concert version of Porgy and Bess, by George Gershwin, arranged by Robert Russell Bennett, Gershwin’s longtime friend, and commissioned by Fritz Reiner when he was conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. The three featured soloists all brought energy and emotion to their singing: baritone Donnie Ray Albert was exceptional as Porgy; tenor Chauncey Packer clad menace in smoothness in Sportin’ Life’s It Ain’t Necessarily So; and Lisa Daltirus cooled Bess’s Summertime with her lyrical soprano voice.

Soprano Lisa Daltirus

This concert version of Porgy and Bess was more successful than the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s full staging in 2008, in part because of the arrangement and condensation. But what really kicked it up a notch was an injection from the Chicago Community Chorus, under the direction of artistic director Keith Hampton. The 100-member chorus, founded in 2003, is comprised of singers from all walks of life and varying levels of musical experience. What emerges is a collective voice with many layers — a perfect way to highlight the power of diversity. 


Chicago Sinfonietta’s next Symphony Center performance will feature works by Rossini, White, Fauré, Bragato, and Grieg at 7:30 p.m. on March 28.



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