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Chicago by John Olson

A Dream Unfolds: Tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Chicago Sinfonietta and Cerqua Rivera Dance Theatre

Also see John's reviews of Dreamgirls and Killer Joe

The Dream Unfolds
Paul Freeman
With the 10-member Cerqua Rivera Dance Theatre featured in a contemporary setting of "Four Negro Spirituals for Orchestra and Soprano" by Hale Smith, the Chicago Sinfonietta's annual Martin Luther King Day concert was a program quite accessible for fans of the arts who may more frequently attend musical theater. The Chicago Sinfonietta at this performance included 59 musicians and was nearly evenly split between strings and wind instruments. This balance, differing from the heavier reliance on strings found in a full symphony, gave the orchestra a different color—one more similar to that of a musical theatre orchestra albeit still two to three times the size of a good pit orchestra.

Sinfonietta Music Director Paul Freeman conducted the concert's first half, which opened with "Pavane" op. 50 by Gabriel Fauré. A late 19th-century piece, it sounds much more contemporary, as Fauré is credited as a major influence on 20th century composition. With a heavy use of woodwinds blended beautifully with strings, it evokes film scores of the late 20th century. It was followed by the "Four Negro Spirituals," which as arranged by Hale were distinctly theatrical, having more than a taste of Gershwin's Porgy and Bess thanks to the Gershwin-esque orchestrations of Hale and the influence of spirituals on Gershwin's Porgy. As choreographed by Wilfredo Rivera, who has worked extensively in musical theater, the Cerqua Rivera company added context to the pieces. "Let Us Break Bread Together" suggested prayer, "Jesus Lay Your Head in the Window" the oppressively hard work of the slaves, "This Little Light of Mine" evangelism through alternating partners and "Witness"—an energetic and joyous church celebration. The spirituals were sung gloriously in alternating solos by contralto Gwendolyn Brown and soprano Jonita Lattimore.

The second half of the program was Beethoven's Ninth Symphony ("Choral"), directed by the young assistant conductor of the Metropolitan Opera, Kazem Abdullah. The guest conductor had a physically expressive presence in leading musicians through this magnificent piece, performed majestically by the Sinfonietta, and sung by Lattimore, Brown, tenor Richard Drews, baritone Bruce Hall, and the 150-voice Northwestern University Symphonic Choir. Abdullah explained the connection to the program's theme of saluting Dr. King: The poem by Schiller, on which Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" of the fourth movement is set, reads in part "What custom strictly divided, All Mankind become brothers".

The program was a fitting tribute to the work of Dr. King, employing the talents of a diverse group of artists all possessing substantial showmanship. The Sinfonietta encouraged accessibility by inviting a number of school groups to the performance. And, though at intermission I spied a text message from on the screen of a high school student's iPhone reading, "OMG, this is so lame," trust me, it wasn't. It was an exciting and fresh presentation proving just how moving and theatrical a classical concert can be.

A Dream Unfolds was presented January 16, 2010, at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois, January 17 at Dominican College in River Forest and January 18th, 2010, at Orchestra Hall in Chicago.


Photo: Ken Carl

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-- John Olson



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