Chicago Sinfonietta’s annual January concert celebrating the life of Martin Luther King Jr. is a tradition that goes back to the early days of the 35-year-old ensemble. But this year’s concert, held on Sunday (January 16) at Wentz Concert Hall in Naperville and at Chicago’s Symphony Center on Monday (January 17, the MLK holiday) held special resonance.
It was the first live MLK Tribute since January 2020, just before the raging COVID-19 pandemic hit; the 2021 concert was delayed until late March and was presented online. That also made it the first live MLK concert since the murder of George Floyd in 2020 sparked both a convulsion of civil unrest and a raised consciousness of racial inequities in society at large and within the classical music community.
This year’s concert was thus a welcome celebration not only of Dr.King but also of the flourishing of BIPOC artists in talent-rich Chicago.
The performance was introduced by Chicago Sinfonietta CEO Blake-Anthony Johnson, who is Black, and it provided a showcase for a stunning lineup of Black artists: baritone Will Liverman; Kathryn Bostic, Sinfonietta’s first artist-in-residence; Jessie Montgomery, Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s composer-in-residence; and Assistant Conductor Kyle Dickson, who took the podium for the orchestra’s rendition of Montgomery’s Soul Force (The Dream Unfinished). Artistic Director Mei-Ann Chan, who enthusiastically conducted the rest of the program, is Taiwanese-American.
The impact of classical music’s increased focus on diversity is benefiting artists of the past as well as the present. The evening’s first two pieces were by Florence Price, who broke ground for Black composers during her lifetime (1887-1953): The performance of her Symphony No. 1 in E minor by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in June 1933 (with George Gershwin in attendance) marked the first time a work by a Black woman composer had been performed by a major U.S. orchestra. But since her death, her works were not prominently performed until a very recent revival of interest.
The Sinfonietta concert opened with a Price composition, Ethiopia’s Shadow in America that struck directly at the harshest history of Blacks in this nation: slavery. The first movement is The Arrival of the Negro in America when first brought here as a slave, followed by His Resignation and Faith, concluding with His Adaptation. The work expresses the hardships, the turmoil and the terror of these stolen lives, but also expresses moments of joy and celebration, beginning a thread of perseverance that ran through the program.
The second Price work—Song to the Dark Virgin, inspired by a 1926 poem by Langston Hughes—was the first of three pieces voiced by Liverman. A graduate of Wheaton College and Chicago Lyric’s Ryan Opera Center, Liverman and his deep, rich voice have already been part of much overdue music history: This past fall, he played the lead role of Black journalist Charles Blow in Fire Shut Up in My Bones, the first work by a Black composer (Terence Blanchard) ever presented by New York’s Metropolitan Opera. Liverman will reprise the role when Fire Shut Up in My Bones is presented by the Lyric Opera of Chicago this March and April.
Liverman’s baritone voice gained Biblical dimensions during Sinfonietta’s performance of excerpts from Felix Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah. His rendition of movement 17, “Is Not His Word Like a Fire,” drew a strong response from the audience that (at Chen’s recommendation) did not reserve its applause until the end of each piece.
After the intermission, the program resumed with Montgomery’s Soul Force, a reference to King’s own words in his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech: “Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.” Montgomery imbues her modernist approach with influences of jazz, blues, hip-hop and rhythm and blues, to moving effect in this one-movement piece. The work follows an arc from bondage to deliverance, gaining momentum, but ending with the realistic conclusion that not all is right. The piece ends with a loud clap of the slapstick that could represent a gunshot or cannon fire.
Bostic took the stage to address the audience before the performance of her work The Great Migration: A Symphony in Celebration of August Wilson, and at the end to accept the audience’s applause. The piece is constructed as a tribute to Wilson, the acclaimed playwright who wrote a series of works with deeply etched characters living in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, many of whom arrived in the Great Migration from the Deep South to work in the city’s steel mills.
Punctuated by Liverman’s readings of text from Wilson’s plays, the piece fluidly brings together five movements of varying moods. I was particularly struck by the third movement, Wylie Avenue, which skillfully expresses the energy, the celebrations, and the turmoil of the residents of that community.
Sinfonietta has had a tradition of ending its MLK concert with the performers and audience linking arms and singing the spiritual We Shall Overcome, which became a rallying cry during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. With an audience already braving the outbreak of COVID’s Omicron variant, such close contact and vocalizing was deemed unwise. So the encore finale was a symphonic piece that beautifully interweaved the tune of We Shall Overcome with that of Lift Every Voice and Sing, also known as the Black national anthem.
Truly an inspirational evening of musical brilliance.