MLK Tribute Concert review- Chicago Sinfonietta’s homage to diversity, access and inclusion

Chicago Sinfonietta Music Director, Conductor Mei-Ann Chen
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On January 19th and 20th 2020, Chicago Sinfonietta, the nation’s most diverse orchestra, presented its annual MLK (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) Tribute Concert, in Wentz Concert Hall at North Central College and in Orchestra Hall at Symphony Center, Chicago.

As Music Director/Conductor Mei-Ann Chen enthusiastically noted in opening, the concert featured 3 conductors, 3 choirs and 3 soloists, in a heartfelt and soaring program of inspiring choices that together served as a fine testament to the martyred civil rights leader, as well as to the principles of diversity, access and inclusion that form the basis of Chicago Sinfonietta’s mandate.

Under the baton of Project Inclusion alumnus and current Chicago Sinfonietta Assistant Conductor Jonathan Rush, the concert opened with Patty Griffin’s Up to the Mountain, inspired by MLK and  beautifully sung by Rush’s sister, Kimberli Joye, vocalist and semi-finalist on NBC’s The Voice. A worship leader and minister, she’s in  the choir at the Church where her parents are pastors. Both before and after her magnetic singing, Rush beamed at his sister, clasped her close; an entire phalanx of family stood for the crowd, pride and joy emanating at the demonstrably rich gifts of the pair.

MLK Concert Chicago Sinfonietta; Jonathan Rush and Kimberli Joye
Photo by Chris Ocken

Next came the traditional spiritual melody Deep River, conducted by Maestra Mei-Ann Chen. The expansive hymnlike piece was first mentioned in print in 1876, when it was published in the first edition of The Story of the Jubilee Singers: With Their Songs, by J. B. T. Marsh. By 1917, Harry T. Burleigh’s arrangement of the song had become very popular in recitals; since then, it has been called “perhaps the best known and best-loved spiritual,” with a brooding and mesmerizing appeal.

The Chicago premiere of composer Joel Thompson’s almost unbearably moving homage to 7 unarmed black men brutally slain by police, The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed, was introduced by Thompson who read an introduction that was as touching as the piece of music itself, putting the choral, orchestral  and spoken word work that followed into context and explaining his compositional construction.

Guest Conductor Kedrick Armstrong

The eerily intoned text for the piece sets the last words of these men before they were shot or killed, and is reproduced below:

1. Kenneth Chamberlain

“Officers why do you have your guns out?”

2. Trayvon Martin

“What are you following me for?”

3. Amadou Diallo

“Mom, I’m going to college.”

4. Michael Brown

“I don’t have a gun! STOP!”

5. Oscar Grant

“You shot me!”

6. John Crawford

“It’s not real”

7. Eric Garner

“I can’t breathe.”

Composer Joel Thompson

Both Thompson’s work and the last piece before the intermission, the lyrically beautiful Academy Award-winning joint piece by John Legend and Common, entitled Glory, from  the film Selma was performed by Chicago Sinfonietta, led by guest conductor Kedrick Armstrong with the Adrian Dunn Singers.

After the intermission, an already emotionally overloaded audience experienced the final movement of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, known as Resurrection.

With the combined voices of the North Central College Concert Choir and Roosevelt University Conservatory Chorus,and featuring soloists Leah Dexter, mezzo-soprano, and Summer Hassan, soprano, Chicago Sinfonietta presented what’s been called “the finale to end all finales.”

The fifth movement of this religiously inspired yet secular giant of the repertoire presents an extraordinary vision, a “procession of rich and poor…a march of the dead to the Day of Judgement”, in Mahler’s own words. It served in this context a solemn role,  presenting  large orchestral effects set off by prominent percussive bells, bringing the evening to it’s inevitable denouement:

We all stood, greeted our neighbors,  joined hands, and sang We Shall Overcome, chorus after chorus.

“Everybody has the blues. Everybody longs for meaning. Everybody wants to love and be loved. Everybody needs to clap hands and be happy. Everybody longs for faith. In music, especially this broad category called jazz, there is a steppingstone towards all of these”. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr

Mei-Ann Chen leads Chicago Sinfonietta, guest choirs and soloists in Mahler’s “Resurrection” finale

For information and tickets to all the programming of Chicago Sinfonietta, and/or to get involved in their community events, go to


All photos by Chris Ocken

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