The concert performed by the Chicago Sinfonietta in tribute to the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was, above all, an earnest display by the musicians who created the program to uplift the audience and display their sincerity in drawing inspiration from King’s life. Those of us in the audience who may be branded as jaded, cynical, or skeptical may instinctively be put off by their efforts, but the program did not have a political agenda, nor was it a didactic experience; rather, it was an attempt to share music with the audience, and they provided a diverse program highlighting the music of diverse nations and musical genres.
The concert was presided over by the music director of the Sinfonietta, Mei-Ann Chen, an enthusiastic leader whose sincerity was evident despite the sometimes awkward remarks she made to the audience. Maestro Chen’s remarks and the remarks of other musicians involved with the program gave the program a homemade, “warts and all” feel, a stark but not entirely unwelcome contrast to the slick, polished feel for which most classical concerts strive; forgive any condescension in my characterization of the concert, but the imperfections and awkward moments endeared the musicians, particularly Chen, to the audience in a way that other performances simply don’t.
The program began with a couple of conventional classical works, beginning with an undersized but inspired (particularly in the strings) performance of Verdi’s overture to La Forza del Destino, a piece that has become somewhat ubiquitous after last year’s Verdi bicentennial but one that, as far as clichéd pieces go, is highly enjoyable. I suppose the link between Verdi and King would be that just as King fought to establish a more democratic America in the 1960’s, Verdi fought to establish a democratic, unified Italy in the 1860’s. The rationale provided in the program notes, that “La Forza resonates with contemporary audiences as it tells a tale of lovers destined not to be together because of prejudice, class struggle and the cycle of violence”, a rather overwrought characterization of what is, truth be told, a rather saccharine melodrama transcended, as so much of Verdi’s source material is, by sublime music. This piece was followed by Richard Strauss’s First Horn Concerto, featuring soloist Nicole Cash, a performer with a mellow, subdued tone, performing a piece that seemed much influenced by the work of Mozart.
Those pieces were followed by the U.S. premiere of an experimental work, Mountain Top, composed by avant-garde Dutch composer Jacob TV (Jacob Ter Veldhuis). The piece was inspired by the final speech of Dr. King’s life, delivered one day before his death in Memphis in April, 1968. The work is for percussion (xylophone, kettle drums, bass drum), choir, all accompanied by a video tribute to King with the audio of his final speech played on speakers. Using the actual audio of King’s speech, which was then sung by the mixed chorus (the Roosevelt University CCPA Conservatory chorus), undermined the effectiveness of the whole piece because Dr. King’s voice is so powerful, perhaps the most iconic voice in American history, that as the audience gets the snippets of his speech (which has been mixed up by a recording edit, creating a distracting effect that somewhat diminishes the power of the speech) it takes their attention away from the music. Too much is going on in this piece, and so deciding what to pay attention to is simply too difficult to register everything at once. Though Jacob TV’s inspiration is to be commended, his intentions are far more admirable than his execution.
After the European section of the program, the focus of the concert shifted to American music, specifically African-American religious music or pieces inspired by it. The first piece was an orchestral piece by Morton Gould, Revival, a Fantasy on Six Spirituals, a Copland-esque work that orchestrated several black spirituals into a classically idiomatic composition. The Sinfonietta then yielded some of the spotlight as they accompanied the Apostolic Church of God Sanctuary Choir, based out of the Chicago church of the same name. For those of us whose experience with Gospel music is limited, their performance was not merely a revelation of a great form of music, but a strong argument that those of us who don’t know much about Gospel music ought to learn about it. Their first piece in particular, “Every Praise (is to Our God),” was about as buoyant a song as one could hope to hear, a truly wonderful display by this ensemble of devotion both to their church and to the uplifting music.
Like the great religious works of Bach or Handel, great gospel music transcends belief because it is a sublime worldly manifestation of human gifts performing in service to a belief in the spiritual. The soloists and the choir were marvelous artists, whose performance inspired some in the audience to clap with the music, or even rise up and sing at the top of their lungs, as has been the practice for many decades in African-American churches. I do regret the inclusion in the program of the mawkish “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” from the Sound of Music, a patently false work that stands in stark contrast to the gospel works, which, though not all quite approached the level of “Every Praise,” were definitely preferable to the musical theatre piece.
Again, it is difficult to doubt or criticize the sincerity of the people who helped patch this program together. Rather than preaching to the audience, the mission of the program was to use the inspiration from a great American to communicate to the audience using their artistic gifts. Dr. King was not necessarily at the center of this program; the musicians were, and that was a far more prudent choice.