Review: Chicago Philharmonic Season Opener Swings into Diversity

The decision by Chicago Philharmonic to open its 2022-23 concert season Thursday with a program focused on diversity was well within character for the orchestra.  

Diversity had long been a concern for the musician-run orchestra and its conductor, Scott Speck. Its effort to provide better representation for Black composers and performers ramped up considerably since national incidents of racial injustice in 2020 prompted a self-examination within the classical music community.

Chicago Philharmonic also underscored its sincerity on this issue last year by hiring Terrell Johnson, a young Black innovator, as its executive director. 

Thursday’s program, presented at the Harris Theater, featured works by William Grant Still — who broke ground in 1930 with his Afro-American Symphony — and Florence Price, a Chicago resident who in 1933 became the first Black woman composer to have her work performed by a major American orchestra (our own Chicago Symphony Orchestra). Although both achieved recognition in their time, their work had unfairly faded into obscurity for decades before its current revival. 

The orchestra also performed the world premiere of a piece by Jonathan Bingham, a rising star who is one of three Black artists in the year-old Donna Milanovich Composer in Residence program. 

The evening was rounded out with nods to Latin American music written by Mexico’s Arturo Márquez, and Brazilians Heitor Villa-Lobos, César Guerra-Peixe and Clóvis Pereira.

Musicians filled the Harris Theater stage during Chicago Philharmonic's concert. Photo by Bob Benenson.

Musicians filled the stage and performed with Chicago Philharmonic’s typical musical excellence, with perhaps a little extra brio under Speck’s lively conducting. 

The concert opened with Villa-Lobos' Prelude movement from his Bachianas Brasileiras No. 4, written in 1941. The title reflects the composer’s admiration for Johann Sebastian Bach and his devotion to infusing traditional classical forms with the rhythms of Brazilian folk music. The piece, played by all strings and a harpsichord, begins with a slow and sensitive passage channeling Bach, and concludes with a lush and lovely evocation of Brazilian themes. 

Price’s Ethiopia’s Shadow in America portrays in music the experience of Black people from their arrival as slaves to their finding solace in religion to their adaptation to life on this continent.  

This piece — also performed by the Chicago Sinfonietta as part of its Annual MLK Tribute Concert last January — begins with a movement that evokes the fear and remorse of Blacks arriving as slaves, with passages of thundering drums. The second movement describes both Blacks’ resignation to their lives in a strange land and their finding hope in religious faith, with a score that has undertones of Black spirituals. The final movement presents the adaptation of Blacks to the American way of life while maintaining ancient traditions. 

Bingham, who takes a classically structural approach to his composing, wrote Monograph, his premiered piece, in obstinato, indicating that its phrases are repeated over time by different sections of the orchestra. Unlike many young composers, Bingham eschews many modernist tropes, and his resulting work is refreshingly musical. 

The first half of the concert ended with Márquez’ Danzón No. 2, an orchestral interpretation of Mexican dance hall music. It was a lively romp accented by the rhythmic clacking of claves (pronounced CLAH-vayz), and it underscored one of the traits of Chicago Philharmonic’s performances: Its large ensemble, from the robust community of our region’s top-flight classical artists, often seems to have more fun performing than most orchestral musicians do. 

Scott Speck's lively conducting style is part of the entertainment at Chicago Philharmonic concerts. Photo by Bob Benenson.

The second half of the program started with Mourão, a short and lively composition by Guerra-Peixe and Pereira that featured Brazilian folk music to an even greater extent than the Villa-Lobos piece. The formal program concluded with Still’s brilliant Afro-American Symphony (its formal title is his Symphony No. 1), which music historians deem as the first Black-composed symphony played by a white orchestra when it debuted in 1930. 

Jazz and blues were still new facets of the Black musical experience and both influenced Still’s work on the piece; as a young musician, Still started out in the band of W.C. Handy, most famous for composing “St. Louis Blues.” The first movement of Still’s symphony, a Moderato assai titled “Longing,” was written almost entirely in blues progressions.  

The second movement, a somber Adagio titled “Sorrow,” was followed by a lively Animato, titled “Humor,” which has some controversy about it; several phrases sound quite a bit like George Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm,” and there is no clarity among musicologists about which came first (conductor Speck recently conversed with Still’s daughter who insists that Gershwin ripped off her father). The final Lento, con risoluzione movement, titled “Aspiration,” builds slowly into a soaring conclusion. 

During the audience’s standing ovation, Speck bounded back on the podium and launched the ensemble into a swinging encore of Handy’s masterwork, with a twist: a samba version of “St. Louis Blues.” 

Chicago Philharmonic this season is presenting a number of innovative partnerships in the Chicago community. Next Friday (October 21), one of its string quartets will participate in a program titled The Upside Down Mixtape at Replay Lincoln Park, 2833 N. Sheffield Ave.

The description of the event is as follows: "Chicago Philharmonic battles against the creatures of the Upside Down With an awesome mixtape @Stranger Bar popup at Replay Lincoln Park! Don't miss Chicago Phil’s string quartet shred classics from Kate Bush, Metallica, Michael Jackson, Journey, Talking Heads & more." Tickets are $25 and include two drinks up to a $25 value.

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Bob Benenson

Bob Benenson is publisher/writer/photographer of Local Food Forum, a new newsletter that covers the broad sweep of the Chicago region’s food community. He is a longtime advocate for a better, healthier, more sustainable food system and is an avid home cook who gets most of his delicious ingredients from local farmers.