Review: Chicago Sinfonietta raises the bar on its annual King concert tradition

Mei-Ann Chen
Chicago Sun-Times

By Andrew Patner

Is there anything quite like a Chicago Sinfonietta concert at Orchestra Hall?

America’s most diverse orchestra, founded by an African-American conductor-scholar 25 years ago, now led by a Taiwanese woman, performing at a very high level music from three centuries with influences from at least as many continents before a large, predominantly black audience? An annual birthday tribute to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. that is substantive, moving and joyous?

It’s hard to imagine anything that compares. And this year’s King concert Monday night, following a sold-out matinee Sunday at Wentz Concert Hall of North Central College in in Naperville, managed to raise the bar on this already enviable tradition.

As unlikely as it might sound, music director Mei-Ann Chen, 38, has shown she was born to lead this group and these historically conscious concerts. As passionate and in control as she appears on the podium, so is the sense of connection that she has felt with the United States, with black American history and with King in particular since coming to this country as a teenage music student. She plays and speaks from the heart, the body and the head, and the audience and the players have embraced her.

Her own wide embrace extends to sharing she stage as often as possible with what she calls “new sisters and brothers.” In the course of the program, the Sinfonietta may have broken its own records with three women conductors and three African-Americans on the podium in one evening.

The program embodied Paul Freeman and Chen’s visions of universal music: the first half held Hungarian Zoltan Kodaly’s 1933 ethnographic-inspired “Dances of Galanta,” Beethoven’s lesser-heard 1814 “Fidelio” overture, and Charles Ives’ remarkable 1906 two-ensemble “Central Park in the Dark.” Philadelphia-based conductor Jeri Lynne Johnson, a University of Chicago graduate music alum, led a well-thought-out Beethoven, and took the brass and wind “interruptions” of the Ives nightscape, that, with Chen’s string evocation of the underlying summer night, was one of the best “Central Parks” I’ve heard.

The second half featured “Harambee: Road to Victory.” a brief but buoyant world premiere by longtime Chicago new music mainstay Nicole Mitchell, recently relocated to the University of California-Irvine. Unable to perform the solo flute part herself here due to a family emergency, Mitchell had an able replacement in Chicago native Kedgrick Pullums. Johnson also led this piece, which brought the Apostolic Church of God Sanctuary Choir to the stage. Mitchell lately has been blending her own improvisations with scored jazz and classical ensembles, and this work continued that exploration.

The roof then was nearly blown off when Chen, the choir and orchestra collaborated on the first of four contemporary gospel numbers, “Total Praise” by Richard Smallwood, orchestrated by Willetta Greene-Johnson, who, along with the Apostolic’s minister of music H. Chip Johnson Jr., also conducted a selection. Chen returned for the finale, and despite her claim to “knowing nothing about conducting gospel music,” more than held her own with the disciplined and highly effective singers. Excellent soloists, varied in style, included the Rev. Ivory Nuckolls, James Hudson and Travis A. Newsome.

The Freeman tradition of an audience sing-along to “We Shall Overcome” closed the concert. It displayed the same humor and warmth that Freeman, whose life and career were greatly influenced by a chance airport meeting with King, brought to the tradition. Despite the ravages of the world outside, the hall became a place of real fellowship. “Surely Dr. King is smiling down on this,” a beaming Chen said toward the concert’s end. I’d say not just King, but the people’s music champion Kodaly, the American excavator Ives and the great musical humanist Beethoven himself. Glory be.