The Chicago Sinfonietta Performed a Tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on January 19th in Naperville

Mei-Ann Chen
Naperville Sun

By Natalia Dagenhart

The Chicago Sinfonietta prepared a great present for the local music lovers and those who honor the life and memory of Martin Luther King, Jr. Wentz Concert Hall at North Central College became a home for an unforgettable Tribute to that great man – “a man of destiny and the primary leader of the civil rights movement” - Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The performance was carefully prepared, organized and orchestrated and united people with different backgrounds, race, nationality, socio-economic level and experience.

As a person who was raised in a different country I was excited to come to this concert and learn more about Martin Luther King, Jr. through the language of music. Of course, I read and heard about him before, but it was never enough to really understand his pain, his bravery and his high belief in the equity, freedom and justice. I was excited and prepared for an unforgettable experience. I wanted to feel what Dr. King felt and to go through each emotion of each musical movement during this unique performance.

The concert started with the National Anthem of South Africa in honor of Nelson Mandela who recently died and who became an inspiration to millions of those who are oppressed and deprived. The audience was standing during the whole anthem. I was standing there and thinking about the words of the amazing conductor of the Chicago Sinfonietta Mei-Ann Chen, who in her preview of this concert asked this question: “Why some people are chosen for a higher purpose?” All of us had to answer this question during that peaceful winter afternoon in Naperville, and the language of music helped us to find the answer.

An emotional Overture to La Forza del Destino (The Force of Destiny) by Giuseppe Verdi became an excellent and logical start of the concert. “The brass fanfare of the night’s opener”, as it was mentioned in the program notes, addressed destiny directly. This piece, written in 1861 and first performed in the Bolshoi Kamenny Theatre of St. Petersburg in Russia in 1862, in a surprising way reflected the life and destiny of Dr. King. It created that special mood of a free motion that just kept developing during the concert.

The next piece called Horn Concerto No. 1 by Richard Strauss featured Nicole Cash, a fantastic horn player who is an associate principal horn at San Francisco Symphony. As an African-American woman, who worked hard on her musical career and became a successful highly honored American musician, Nicole represents the triumph of the ideas and beliefs of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. through her fantastic performance and the triumphant quality to the concerto.

However, the centerpiece of the Tribute was an amazing composition called Mountain Top and created by the Dutch composer Jacob Ter Veldhuis, who goes by pseudonym JacobTV. This performance was a North American premiere and impressed every member of the audience by its endless power and emotional strength. As JacobTV mentioned in his notes, Mountain Top “is based on the dramatic last speech of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. a few hours before his assassination in Memphis.” To express his emotions and understanding of that speech, the composer used a unique combination of the voices of the mixed choir, sampler, percussion instruments and fantastically directed video. During this composition, the words of Dr. King’s passionate speech were displayed on the video that was controlled by the sampler and performed “live”. The words of his speech sounded very unusual. While the audience was able to recognize the voice of Dr. King, the words were “chopped up, repeated, stretched out and otherwise modified to dramatic effect.” Roosevelt University CCPA Conservatory Chorus took part in this performance and along with percussion was responding to the Dr. King’s solo. Interestingly, JacobTV noted that “all melody, harmony and rhythms… come from the original speech.”

I do feel that I am part of this country now, and it took me a few years before I started to understand American customs, traditions and holidays and put them through my soul and heart. But this composition made a miracle – just in a few minutes it made me feel every move of every nerve of a man of a different race than mine but with a very similar heart and soul. At that moment I understood deeper than ever his role in history and that HE was chosen by God to change the world. He was born to bring justice and equity to this country. He knew he was right. He knew his purpose. He accomplished his goals.

When the last sound of Mountain Top dissolved in the breathless auditorium, the conductor stood there quiet for a few more seconds. Mei-Ann Chen was still in the music; I think at that moment she was still full of emotions, and her mind was not in our reality. It was still in the fantastic world of this music encouraged by the spirit of the passionate speech of Martin Luther King, Jr. The composition was so organic and inspiring that the percussion instruments sounded like one big organism that moved in a rhythm indicated by the words of Dr. King. A huge part of this “organism” was an amazing choir that responded to the solo and a fantastic video; but the heart of this beautiful composition was the conductor, Mei-Ann Chen.

After that culmination of the night, the second part of the concert brought relief with the emotional and comforting sounds of Revival, a Fantasy on Six Spirituals by the popular composer of the 20th century Morton Gould. His beautiful and tender music carried peace and touched my feelings. That piece was followed by the inspirational performance of Every Praise (is to our God). The soloist Herald “Chip” Johnson involved the audience that was singing along with the Apostolic Church of God Sanctuary Choir.

A hurricane of emotions brought the next song called Turning Around For Me. This sensitive and touching composition was directed by Dr. Willetta Greene-Johnson and featured the soloist Travis Newsome who put every note of the piece through his heart. After that, the audience was inspired by a very optimistic composition called Hallelujah, You’re Worthy To Be Praised, where Herald “Chip” Johnson functioned as a conductor and Zita Adamopoulos was singing a solo. Two hundred members of the Apostolic Church of God Sanctuary Choir added depth and spirituality to every musical piece in the second part of the concert and made every song sound complete and organic.

During the one of the most inspiring songs “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” from the musical The Sound of Music where everyone is encouraged to take every step towards their dreams, the conductor Chen invited the audience to sing along. For those of us who didn’t know the words (and I was one of them), she was pronouncing the words out loud into a microphone. I felt united to all these people – the musicians and the audience members.

However, we became even closer during the song called We Shall Overcome that was not mentioned in the program, but which is a traditional song used to end the Sinfonietta’s Martin Luther King, Jr. tributes every year. We Shall Overcome is one of the main anthems of the African-American Civil Rights Movement in the United States. During this inspirational song, the audience members were asked to hold each other’s hands. I felt that I am part of this society, and that this beautiful concert helped me to better understand this country, its history and its heroes.

??And answering the question that Mei-Ann Chen asked in her preview of this concert: “Why some people are chosen for a higher purpose?” it’s best to use Martin Luther King’s, Jr. own words: “I’ve been to the mountaintop… And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!” Dr. King brought us there.