Classical

Review: Chicago Philharmonic’s Simple Gifts 

Guest soloist Njioma Grevious performed at Chicago Philharmonic’s concert in Skokie. Photo by Bob Benenson

Chicago Philharmonic isn’t as much of a household name on the city’s classical scene as Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Lyric Opera of Chicago, and Music of the Baroque. Yet the company consistently produces excellent, at times memorable, concerts. This is a tribute to the ensemble’s savvy program selections, Scott Speck’s energetic leadership as artistic director and conductor, and this region’s huge pool of talented players. 

This was on display on a recent Sunday when Chicago Philharmonic opened its 2021-22 season with a matinee concert at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in suburban Skokie. It was a new beginning in a couple of important ways. 

Terell Johnson made introductory remarks prior to the first Chicago Philharmonic concert since his hiring as executive director. Photo by Bob Benenson.

It was the orchestra’s first concert since March 1, 2020, shortly before the explosion of the COVID-19 pandemic forced cancellation of the final three concerts of the 2020 season and wiped out the 2020-21 schedule. It also was the first concert under Executive Director Terell Johnson, who was hired by the Chicago Philharmonic after six years with the New World Symphony in Miami Beach, Florida. 

The program opened with Out of the Silence, a short piece written in 1939 by William Grant Still—a pioneering Black American composer and orchestra conductor—as part of Seven Traceries, a suite said to be made up of musical reflections on God. An opening with an air of uncertainty, with flute and strings playing dissonant chords, gave way to the lovely melody of a piano solo, as the piece rises to a hopeful note. 

Principal clarinet Sergey Gutorov performed the solo on Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A Major, then went up top with Conductor Scott Speck to celebrate. Photos by Bob Benenson (top) and Eric Snoza (bottom).

The next two pieces showcased superb soloists. The first reached back into annals of classical music with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A Major. Written in 1791, it would become the last instrumental piece written by Mozart, who died that December at age 35. Chicago Philharmonic principal clarinetist Sergey Guturov stepped forward and owned the piece, particularly wringing the heart-rending beauty of the Adagio 2nd movement and capturing the rapid-fire joy of the 3rd and final movement’s Rondo and Allegro.  

The third piece in the program was Glory, written in 2019, and it highlighted two rising stars: Marcus Norris — a member of Chicago Philharmonic’s new Composer in Residence Program — and guest violinist Njioma Grevious. Norris describes the short piece as inspired by the struggle to triumph over adversity, and Grevious met the challenge of the piece’s shifting moods. The piece opened with her solo, quickening from a slow somber tone to airs of optimism. But it does not provide a sugar-coated ending, with Grevious capturing its accelerating, anxious pace and abrupt conclusion. 

Composer Marcus Norris and soloist Njioma Grevious accept audience applause after Chicago Philharmonic’s performance of Glory, as Conductor Scott Speck looks on. Photo by Eric Snoza.

A major national push to address racial inequalities in America is resonating in the world of classical music. In presenting works by Black composers Still and Norris in its first live concert since COVID set in; by inviting Grevious, a Black soloist; and with its hiring of Johnson, who is Black, as Executive Director, Chicago Philharmonic is evidencing that it takes this issue seriously. 

The concert concluded with one of the hallmarks of American classical music, Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring (1944). Born to Russian Jewish immigrants in 1900, Copland captured the spirit of American rural folk music in a manner that Antonin Dvorak did with Czech folk music, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky did with Russian folk and Jean Sibelius did with native Finnish music.  

Appalachian Spring is in a similar vein to Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, Billy the Kid, the Lincoln Portrait, and the music he composed for Rodeo, a ballet choreographed by Agnes DeMille. Similar to Rodeo, Appalachian Spring was written as a ballet score, in this case for Martha Graham.  

Copland’s work incorporated Simple Gifts, a then little-known song of Shaker origin written in the mid-19th century (‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’Tis the gift to be free, ‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be…”). In doing so, he elevated this piece of Americana into one of the most familiar and most sampled themes in our classical canon. 

North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie. Photo by Bob Benenson.

Chicago Philharmonic’s next concert is scheduled for Sunday, November 21, 3 p.m., at the North Shore Center for Performing Arts. The program includes Johannes Brahms’ Serenade No. 2 in A Major, Op. 16; a world premiere of a piece by Composer in Residence Jonathan Bingham; and Dvorak’s Serenade for Wind Instruments, Op. 44. Adult tickets, ranging from $27-$77, and youth tickets priced at $12 can be purchased by clicking here.  

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