Hearing the Chicago Sinfonietta’s Tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Jan. 14, in Dominican University’s Lund Auditorium was a little like settling in for a long reception line of unrelated visitors-each stopping by with a friendly and imaginative word, and all dressed with high professionalism. True to their mission, “Musical excellence through diversity,” the Sinfonietta’s polished line-up was part concert and part pep rally, fire, brimstone, history, and call to arms-that is, arms of a distinctly nonviolent variety.
With over four decades of hindsight, Americans have made much of King’s immortal “I Have a Dream” manifesto. Paul Freeman, founder and music director of the Sinfonietta, interprets King’s credo as a challenge to embrace America’s richly diverse peoples and culture. And so, through an array of moods and styles, he offered a musically diverse program, from the intensely poignant “Lyric for Strings” by African-American George Walker to the syncopated fervor of Richard Smallwood’s “Anthem of Praise” on the text of Psalm 150.
The oldest and perhaps most traditional work on the program was performed by the youngest: the tall and distinguished Jeremy Ajani Jordan, a 17-year-old prodigy from Chicago. Jordan’s concentration and solid leadership as soloist in Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 1 are hallmarks of a rare natural talent. He engaged in an easy dialogue with the orchestra, almost like a chemist carefully mixing a magic potion, not hampered in the least by the demanding cascades of rippling scales-in D-flat no less! This young pianist’s superbly assured performance gives hope for a future generation that will be stirred by the challenges and rewards in the canon of fine art music.
The newest work was the world premiere of Lerone Bennett, Jr.’s “Martin, Coretta, and Rosa: A Musical Portrait.” A former classmate of King’s and one of his biographers, Mr. Bennett recounted the King legacy with the sounds of the orchestra sensitively hovering in the background.
In the foreground was soprano Jonita Lattimore, a woman with a wall of a voice. The creative pairing of the so-called “Goin’ Home,” in the style of an American spiritual from Dvorák’s Ninth Symphony with excerpts from William Grant Still’s Afro-American Symphony of 1930 gave this historical narrative a fresh immediacy. Part prose and part news, interspersed with poetic couplets, Bennett’s delivery made the main characters seem like real people instead of textbook patriots.
Ms. Lattimore riveted the audience with both her sparkling upper range and husky lower register-all notes called up in her intense proclamation of faith and highly ornamented improvisations of “Amazing Grace,” “Witness,” “Honor to the Dying Lamb,” and “Ride On, King Jesus!”
From Russian virtuosity and American memorials, the concert turned to a rousing shout of victory at the intermission announcement of the Bears’ overtime win. Then it was on to a sampling of works from the African-American choral repertoire, performed by the 40-voice Gospel Choir of the College of Lake County. Their director, Charles Clency, shared the honors with Maestro Freeman. Strains of Handel peeked through the jazzy piano and drum combo in the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Messiah: A Soulful Celebration. Singing with heart, stepping with drive, and diverse in age, stature, and race, this choir embodied King’s vision of fervently reaching for the dream. Together with the audience, an optimistic and nostalgic “We Shall Overcome” brought the program to a close.
While this program was heavy on the musical contributions of black culture, both black and white audience members at this event were sent out with a common call to action. In Bennett’s words: “It only lasted a moment, but Americans saw the possibility of an America that has not yet been discovered. What are we doing to make sure that he did not die in vain?”
The Chicago Sinfonietta performs again at Lund Auditorium on the Dominican University campus Sunday, March 18, featuring Christopher Parkening, guitar and Jubilant Sykes, baritone.