Celebrating the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. has been an annual ritual of the Chicago Sinfonietta for nearly a decade, and honoring his legacy has been a guiding principal of the orchestra’s mission for all of its 27 year existence. With this year’s tribute, we celebrate not only the achievements of his days on earth with joyous gospel music, but also ponder both his death and the continuing inspiration his words provide for the work that remains to be done to achieve justice and equality.


Mei-Ann Chen, Music Director and conductor

Chen-High-Res-Photo-1Mei-Ann Chen’s path to the Chicago Sinfonietta has passed through Atlanta, the city of Dr. King’s birth, and Memphis, the city where his earthly life was ended by an assassin’s bullet. As an Asian immigrant and a woman, her ascendency to the position of Music Director in Memphis and Chicago is at least in part a result of Dr. King’s and Sinfonietta founder Paul Freeman’s visions of a world free from discrimination. Of course, given that she was born in Taiwan, it could perhaps be understood if her command of the Black spiritual idiom was not firm. Yet, in her 2012 debut leading the Sinfonietta’s MLK tribute, Sun-Times critic Andrew Patner was moved to say the following:

“The roof then was nearly blown off when Chen, the choir and orchestra collaborated on the first of four contemporary gospel numbers… 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.” Wynne Delacoma, writing for Chicago Classical Review, added, “Chen’s conducting style, intense and highly expressive, is ideal for gospel music. She drew a similarly expert blend of weighty, blended choral sound and heaven-storming emotion from the musicians in the two gospel works she conducted.”

Mei-Ann Chen has been the Music Director of the Chicago Sinfonietta since 2011. At the end of her first full season, she and the orchestra were honored with two awards from the League of American Orchestras: a First Place Award for Programming of Contemporary Music and the Helen M. Thompson Award, which acknowledged Maestro Chen’s impact on the Sinfonietta and potential for an important international national career.

Mei-Ann Chen’s complete biography can be found here.

Maestro Chen Previews the concert.

Nicole Cash, horn

Nicole CashNicole Cash has been a member of the San Francisco Symphony since 2009, and is currently their Associate Principal horn. Previous to that, the Virginia native was with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and, for a time, co-principal horn at South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal Philharmonic. She is a graduate of music programs at Rice and Northwestern Universities. She joins us on Richard Strauss’s Horn Concerto No. 1.

In addition to holding down that chair in San Francisco, Nicole has been a featured soloist on many stages around the world, including orchestras in orchestras in Honolulu, San Antonio, Houston, the Grand Teton Music Festival Orchestra and the Sun Valley Summer Symphony, and as guest Principal horn with the Saint Louis Symphony.  She gives recitals around the world as well, including recent ones at International Horn Symposiums in Brisbane, Australia, San Francisco, California and in Tokyo for the Japan Horn Society.

She may play only classical music, but if you were to engage in a game of “What’s on your iPod?” with her, you’d find she listens to everything from Radiohead to A Tribe Called Quest. She answers a few more questions at about music and life at the SFS website and the nicely named Classically Trained Black Kid blog.

Roosevelt University CCPA Conservatory Chorus
Cheryl Frazes Hill, Director

With our MLK tribute concert this year, we are pleased to be collaborating for the first time with Roosevelt University’s Chicago College of Performing Arts (CCPA) Conservatory Chorus on the North American Premiere of JacobTV’s Mountain Top.

The Conservatory Choral program has a long and wonderful tradition of providing students with exposure to many styles of choral repertoire as well as opportunities to work with resident and guest conductors in a wide variety of performance venues. Consisting of undergraduate voice and music education majors, the Conservatory Chorus collaborates with instrumental ensembles regularly in performances of larger symphonic choral works. The chorus performs with the CCPA Symphony Orchestra as well as with local orchestras in the Chicago area. Associate Professor Cheryl Frazes Hill has served as Director of Choral Activities and Head of Music Education at Roosevelt University’s Chicago College of Performing Arts since 2001.  Under her direction, the Conservatory Chorus has been selected to prestigious events including an appearance in the American Choral Directors Association National Convention, the Illinois Music Educators State Conference, guest appearances with regional professional orchestras and, most recently, three concerts with the Rolling Stones at the United Center.

Yes, the Rolling Stones. For a shaky-camera homemade glimpse of the Chorus performing in front of a very large and extremely enthusiastic audience, check the video.

For an account on how the Chorus prepared for and performed  this unusually high profile gig, read the RedEye article.

Apostolic Church of God Sanctuary Choir
Willetta Greene-Johnson, Director
Herald “Chip” Johnson, Minister of Music

Long time patrons of the Chicago Sinfonietta know the mighty power of the Apostolic Choir.  The first collaboration between the two groups occurred in 1989, just two years after the orchestra’s founding. Most recently, the choir participated in Maestro Paul Freeman’s farewell concert in May of 2011 and Mei-Ann Chen’s first MLK tribute concert in 2012. Previous to that were eight more performances spanning over two decades. Maestro Freeman even invited them to Prague to perform with the Czech National Symphony, where he was also Music Director.

The Sanctuary Choir has been an anchor for the music ministry of the Apostolic Church of God throughout the seventy-plus year history of the church. Consisting of over 300 voices, the music focus of the choir is centered on quality presentations of sacred music including anthems, gospel, hymns and inspirational songs. They’ve appeared in concert with everyone from Gladys Knight to Wynton Marsalis.  The Choir is currently led by Minister of Music Herald “Chip” Johnson and Dr. Willetta Greene-Johnson, a Grammy-winning composer and arranger, both of whom will share the podium with Mei-Ann Chen in this year’s tribute.

More information on Apostolic Church and their music ministry can be found here.

Don't miss Prelude, our pre-concert discussion featuring the artists of the MLK Tribute Concert. Prelude begins approximately 1 hour prior to the concert.


Giuseppe Verdi, La Forza del Destino, overture

verdiGiuseppe Verdi was an Italian Romantic composer primarily known for his operas, several of which are among the most performed of all time. Many melodies and themes taken from them have found their way into popular culture. The composer is also known for his Requiem, a powerful work regarded as a masterpiece of the oratorio tradition. Verdi’s life was deeply marked by the early deaths of his wife and children. Verdi himself was a young man at the time, just starting out as a composer, and this tragedy surely informed much of his subsequent work. Still, Verdi lived a full life of 88 years, and his late works display a sense of calm and achievement.

La Forza del Destino, written in 1861 during an especially prolific time in the composer’s life, translates to “the force of destiny” in English. Its placement at the beginning of this concert hints at the forces of destiny at work in the life of Dr. King that will become explicit later in the program. It’s also worth noting that Verdi was politically engaged in Italian issues and did not work in an isolated, rarified art world separate from humanity. The subject material of La forza resonates with contemporary audiences as it tells a tale of lovers destined not to be together because of prejudice, class struggle and the cycle of violence.

A useful biography covering the major events in Verdi’s life can be found at the PBS website.

The video is the overture performed by the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano.

Richard Strauss, Horn Concerto No. 1 in E-flat major

straussLike Giuseppe Verdi, German composer Richard Strauss is known for his operas and vocal works as well as a number of tone poems, including the anthemic Also sprach Zarathustra, which was so dramatically used in Stanley Kubrick’s epic film “2001, A Space Odyssey”. His life straddled the late Romantic and early modern periods in classical music, and you can hear some of the tension between the two in his music. Strauss’s father was the principal horn player in the Munich Court Orchestra, which may explain his son’s fondness for including the instrument prominently in several compositions, including the concerto performed at our tribute concert.

Some of the tension between the eras derives from the younger Strauss’s interest in the radical music of Richard Wagner, which his father’s conservative background viewed with suspicion if not outright hostility. It’s been hinted that the elder Strauss and Wagner detested each other. Richard Strauss would eventually come to disagree with his father and embrace Wagner's operas, but when he began composing his first horn concerto at the age of 18, he was still very much under his father’s influence. This concerto is cast in the three movements traditional to European concertos, with the first two linked. The solo instrument comes in almost immediately: after just one resonant chord from the orchestra, the horn jumps right in with a heroic fanfare.

Strauss’s family has built a very nice website dedicated to their grandfather, including personal recollections.

The video is a performance of the first movement by Japan’s Evergreen Symphony Orchestra.

Jacob Ter Veldhuis, Mountain Top

jacobThe centerpiece of our MLK tribute concert is the North American premiere of a work written expressly in honor of Dr. King by Dutch “avant-pop” composer Jacob Ter Veldhuis, who goes by the name of JacobTV. In his own notes for the piece, Ter Veldhuis states that “King was a charismatic preacher, and one of the greatest orators of American history, devoting his life to the advancement of civil rights. As a Dutch boy growing up in the 60s I remember him very well because the media in Holland reported about him regularly. Mountain Top is a timeless speech in which King calls for unity and nonviolent protest, while challenging the United States to live up to its ideals.”

Mountain Top is scored for sampler, mixed choir, percussion and video. In it, Ter Valdhuis adapts the text of Dr. King’s famous speech delivered mere hours before his assassination in Memphis in 1968. King seems to predict his imminent death when he prophetically proclaims, “But I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the Promised Land. I may not get there with you... Like anybody I would like to live a long life. But I’m not concerned about that now.”  Ter Veldhuis was not only inspired by the words, but also the rich melodic intonations of Dr. King’s voice. He analyzed the musical quality of the speech and used that as a basis of the harmony, melody and rhythm of the piece. The speech itself is audible, and the composition functions as a cantata, with Dr. King the lead singer and the choir and percussion responding to him. Meanwhile, a video screen will display the animated text as it is spoken and sung.

JacobTV maintains his own website with a bio, works, and audio+video.

Morton Gould, Revival, a Fantasy on Six Spirituals

gouldDr. King’s faith was essential for his strength to continue his work toward justice against what often may have seemed the insurmountable entrenchment of bigotry and privilege, as well as in the face of death threats.  And, of course, he took nourishment from the great well of Black spiritual music. The 20th century American composer Morton Gould, best known for his Broadway scores and marches, was inspired to set six of these spirituals to orchestral arrangements in a single suite. Gould was a musical prodigy, playing the piano and composing by age four. His parents were strongly supportive of their young son and helped to get his first work, a waltz entitled “Just Six”, both performed and published when he was still only six years old.

After the bracing modernism of JacobTV’s radical work, the Sinfonietta and audience will sink into the comforting embrace of a medley of such familiar songs as “Ezekiel Saw the Wheel”, “Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho” and “Were You There?” In his review of the Sinfonietta’s 2008 performance of Revival under Dr. Paul Freeman, Sun-Times critic Bryant Manning praised “the… warm, luxuriant strings.”

The AllMusic website has a brief biography of Morton Gould, along with a discography and audio samples of his work.

Various Composers, Gospel and inspirational music

After the transition of Gould’s symphonic interpretation of spirituals, the concert moves to the real thing with long-time collaborators the Apostolic Church of God Sanctuary Choir and a selection of spiritual and inspirational music arranged for gospel choir and orchestra. As noted above, Dr. King drew strength from these beloved songs, and the Civil Rights movement itself was inexorably linked to them by their message of comfort in the face of adversity, just as it was during slavery.

The gospel tradition, however, didn’t end at some indefinable time in the past. Contemporary composers like Hezekiah Walker, Vashawn Mitchell, and Kurt Carr continue the tradition, finding new ways and rhythms to keep the spirit alive for younger audiences. Even that most famous of Civil Rights anthems, “We Shall Overcome”, was written in the 1950s. Thomas Dorsey, a Chicago church music director and former blues musician himself, was first credited with merging a spiritual message to contemporary music in the 1930s.

Yet, one of the most inspiring songs of all time comes from a secular source, the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The Sound of Music. The lyrics of “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” encourage us to take every step towards attaining our dreams. Dr. King’s dream was most famously articulated in his 1963 March on Washington speech, but it was in his final speech that he said, “We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because 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!”

The website Sweet Chariot has a good deal of wonderful information on the role of spirituals and gospel music in both the struggle against slavery and the Civil Rights movement.

The video is a rollicking live performance of Hallelujah You’re Worthy performed by the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir.


Research and copywriting by Don Macica.

Don is a marketing consultant to the performing arts community and a contributing writer to several online publications including Chicagomusic.org and Arteyvidachicago.com. When not traveling, he lives a stone's throw from Lake Michigan in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood. He is the author of Border Radio, a blog about music, migration and cultural exchange.