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Last night I had the pleasure of celebrating the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the presence of great musicians, dancers, singers and fellow Chicagoans. Rarely does a symphony performance make me feel connected with everyone in the room, and leave me feeling joyous, inspired and genuinely grateful to be living in the world I do today, but leave it to the Chicago Sinfonietta to make me feel that way!
Music Director and Conductor Paul Freeman took to the stage welcomed by a roaring audience, and took a moment to speak about Dr. King and the current situation in Haiti. He asked everyone for a moment of silence for those lost and those surviving, and the audience happily obliged.
The symphony then opened the programme with Gabriel Fauré’s Pavane Opus 50, which sounds graceful and oddly familiar. The neatest part about this piece is how it starts: violinists use their fingers to pluck their strings as clarinetists provide a haunting melody. I have never actually seen anyone pluck a violin before, so I thought that was pretty cool!
For the Four Negro Spirituals for Orchestra and Soprano, arranged by Hale Smith, Ms. Jonita Lattimore (soprano), Ms. Gwendolyn Brown (contralto) and the Cerqua Rivera Dance Theatre joined the symphony on stage.
At first, I was a little confused about the choreography and how it meshed with the music. Let Us Break Bread Together is a hopeful spiritual about community togetherness and worship, and yet the eight CRDT dancers looked tortured with jerky movements and heavy breathing. It was unsettling to watch, like I was watching Lady Gaga dance to My God is an Awesome God or something. Weird.
Lattimore’s performance, however, was both technically flawless and strikingly expressive. In both of her solos in Let Us Break Bread Together and This Little Light of Mine, she sang with palpable joy in her voice while managing to avoid the distortion of any particular note.
It was Brown that blew me away during her solos in Jesus Lay Your Head in the Window and Witness. Brown has a voice that makes you get goose bumps. It is buttery, smooth and strong, and she might be the best singer/storyteller I have ever heard. In Witness she had the crowd laughing as she changed her voice to imitate characters in the song and had a few people muttering “Amen!” under their breath as she infused some spunky attitude into soulful verses. I was smitten!
The dancing eventually got better, too. With each song the dancers seemed to become less nervous and the choreography meshed better with the lyrics and music. In Jesus Lay Your Head in the Window, the dancing was like that daring, asymmetrical dress at the Golden Globes: slightly out of place but eye-catching and memorable. The dancers’ moves displayed their strength, flexibility and personality.
These are no ballerinas. Instead they danced more like warriors. Their movements were purposeful and athletic. It was refreshing.
For the finale guest conductor Kazem Abdullah (who is only 30 years old!) nervously took the stage. He informed the audience that Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D minor, op. 125 (Choral) was the first symphony to have a chorus and soloists involved. Beethoven was inspired to include a chorus in the fourth movement because of the German poet Friedrich Schiller and his poem An die Freude (Ode to Joy).
Abdullah concluded that the piece was perfect for MLK, Jr. Day because one of the lines in Schiller’s Ode to Joy summed up the aura of Dr. King, “all men become brothers”.
The Sinfonietta’s rendition of Beethoven’s 9th was just jaw-dropping. The first movement (Allegro ma non troppo, un poco maestoso) was played the way you feel after you accomplish something great, with a cocky-I-am-on-top-of-the-world feel, paired with barely contained bubbling joy.
Of course, the most recognisable second movement (molto vivace) ebbed and flowed from a series of melodic and harmonic climaxes, creating an urgent and triumphant piece. The best decision that both Abdullah and the Sinfonietta made was to let the piece breathe by providing longer silences between the climaxes (they are usually very short). It felt a bit like watching a juggler throw five bowling pins in into the air and waiting to see if s/he can catch them. Amazing!
The third movement was beautiful but I was focused more on Abdullah, marveling at his energy and excitement for conducting. Since I could not see his face, I kept staring at the coattails of his morning coat and how they would flap together violently as he waved his baton. His hand movements reminded me of the traders on the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade: one flip of a palm would cue the drummer, another would make the violinists come to life.
The fourth and final movement, the presto allegro assai, the Ode to Joy, brought back to the stage Lattimore and Brown and also included the Northwestern University Symphonic Choir, Richard Drews (tenor) and Bruce Hall (baritone). It was fantastically epic and echoed throughout the music hall.
Hall definitely had a pair of lungs in him because he carried out notes for so long his face started to turn red. Drews had great stage presence and a voice so loud that he drowned both Hall and Brown out, as well as some of the instruments! I could barely hear Brown, but Lattimore was sensational and stole the attention away from everyone else whenever she opened her mouth. As to be expected the NUSC was pitch perfect and added a lovely volume and importance to the piece. Everything was perfect for the fourth movement!
If you have not experienced the Chicago Sinfonietta, then you are missing out. There are two more concerts from the CS left in their 2009-2010 season, so you should make sure to buy tickets before it is too late!
If you are still wondering how to celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy, may I suggest buying tickets for tonight’s A Dream Unfolds, hosted by the Chicago Sinfonietta?
This popular annual tribute to Dr. MLK, Jr. is a joyous celebration and a Chicago tradition, as it honours the vision and legacy of one of the greatest civil rights pioneers of the 20th century. A Dream Unfolds will be performed at Chicago’s Orchestra Hall at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Avenue, tonight at 7:30 p.m.
Maestro Paul Freeman will open the programme with Gabriel Fauré’s Pavane Opus 50. Composed in 1887 for his patron, Countess Elisabeth Greffulhe, Fauré’s serene and elegant masterpiece evokes the same grace, passion and idealism for which Dr. King was best known.