Digital Guide to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Tribute Concert

It has been nearly half a century since Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. And there can be no question that while his period of activism lasted a mere 13 years, its impact remains profound, still pushing America toward new possibilities. Yet, resistance remains. Deeply entrenched patterns of inequality continue. The Chicago Sinfonietta celebrates his birthday this year by remembering his faith and the strength of his determination. We still believe that, someday, we shall overcome and hope this concert inspires all of us to follow Dr. King’s example through our own personal commitments to activism.


Mei-Ann Chen, Music Director and conductor

Chen-High-Res-Photo-23Maestro Mei-Ann Chen led her first tribute to Dr. King in 2012, and the Chicago Sun-Times said of it in a review headlined Chicago Sinfonietta raises the bar on annual King concert tradition, “… she was born to lead this group and these historically conscious concerts… Despite the ravages of the world outside, the hall became a place of real fellowship.”

In her time with the Chicago Sinfonietta, she has brought the orchestra to new artistic heights, developing an adventurous approach to repertoire and collaboration while firmly anchoring her ambitious plans in the Sinfonietta’s quarter-century heritage of diversity, inclusion and service to the community. In the process, she has earned two awards from the League of American Orchestra: The Helen M. Thompson Award, given to a music director every two years to recognize their impact and potential for a significant national career, and one for the orchestra, a First Place Award for Adventurous Programming.

In 2015, she was named one of thirty Professionals of the Year by Musical America.

Born in Taiwan, Ms. Chen has lived in the United States since 1989. She holds a Doctor of Musical Arts degree in conducting from the University of Michigan, where she was a student of Kenneth Kiesler. Prior to that, she was the first student in New England Conservatory’s history to receive master’s degrees, simultaneously, in both violin and conducting. She is also the Music Director of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra and is in high demand around the globe as a guest conductor.

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

Paul Freeman (1936-2015), Founding Music Director

Paul03-webThe very idea of the Chicago Sinfonietta, let alone this tribute to Martin Luther King, would not exist without the singular talent and dedication of the orchestra’s founder, Paul Freeman. In fact, it was Maestro Freeman’s chance encounter with the civil rights leader early one morning at the airport in Atlanta that led to the orchestra’s creation. Freeman was already a rising conductor, visiting to guest conduct the Atlanta Symphony. Dr. King was but a few weeks from his untimely death. When Freeman informed Dr. King of the purpose of his visit, King is said to have replied, “The last bastion of elitism . . . Glory, Hallelujah!”

Paul Freeman has transitioned, but his presence is surely in the concert hall. The Chicago Sinfonietta is dedicating their entire season to their founder, and the tribute to Dr. King is perhaps the most visible legacy of Freeman’s vision, along with the diverse faces that populate the seats both on stage and in the audience. The powerful gospel voices of the Apostolic Church Choir first joined the Sinfonietta in 1989, just two years after the orchestra’s founding. If the Sinfonietta has accomplished nothing else, it has certainly busted through the elitist barriers that long isolated classical music in a world of privilege. We have Paul Freeman to thank for that.

A biography is on the Chicago Sinfonietta’s website. In this video, recorded for the occasion of the Sinfonietta’s 20th anniversary, Freeman himself describes his airport encounter with Dr. King and how it inspired him.

Victor Wooten, electric bass and composer

1516_concert3 Virtuoso bassist Victor Wooten has been playing since the age of two and professionally since five. Before his high school graduation, he had shared the stage with Stephanie Mills, War, Ramsey Lewis, Frankie Beverly and Maze, Dexter Wansel, and The Temptations. Now a five-time Grammy winner, he hit the worldwide scene in 1990 as a founding member of Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, a group that utterly destroyed boundaries between several musical genres, chief among them folk, jazz and R&B. in 2011, Rolling Stone Magazine named him as one of the Top Ten bassists of all time.

In addition to these accomplishments, Wooten is also a sought-after educator as well as a naturalist that runs the Wooten Woods Retreat Center outside of Nashville and the author of The Music Lesson - A Spiritual Search for Growth Through Music. The book has gone on to be required reading and part of curriculums in study groups, schools, and universities including the Berklee College of Music and Stanford University.

It is perhaps this spiritual, holistic approach to music making that sets Wooten apart, and puts him right at home in this tribute to Dr. King. In the video, Wooten is interviewed about his unique and fascinating approach to teaching music.

You can learn much more about him at his website.

Willetta Greene-Johnson and Ray Nuckolls, Directors Herald “Chip” Johnson, Minister of Music

Chicago SinfoniettaLong 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 two concerts led by Mei-Ann Chen in 2012 and 2014. 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.

More information on Apostolic Church and their music ministry can be found here. Just try and sit still while watching this video of a powerhouse performance of the Choir recorded in 1998.

Walk through history with MLK

Pre-concert and during intermission, audience members will have a chance to view rarely seen images of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. courtesy of the Chicago History Museum. Also, keep your eyes peeled for a special concert ticket treasure hunt at the museum in the days leading up to the concert. Clues will be posted on social media and in the museum itself - happy hunting!

Thank you to our exhibition sponsors:


Anthem of Praise

smallwood Contemporary gospel music has been part of nearly every Chicago Sinfonietta Dr. King tribute concert. Over that time the songs of dozens of composers have found their way into the program. But there is one whose work has almost always been featured, and that is Richard Smallwood. Now 66 years old, he is among the most prolific and respected gospel songwriters and singers. He founded the Richard Smallwood Singers in 1982 and currently leads Richard Smallwood and Vision.

Congregations across the globe have translated his songs into Korean, German, Hebrew and other languages. He has eight Grammy nominations and within the gospel music industry has won four Dove Awards and 10 Stellars. Three of his 14 albums hit No. 1 in Billboard magazine’s gospel category. He was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 2006 and has sung for presidents Nixon, Reagan and Clinton. Smallwood’s songs have been recorded by non-gospel artists like Destiny’s Child and Whitney Houston.

The Washington Post Magazine recently did an in-depth profile of Smallwood and his music. The video is a high-energy, orchestrated live version of Richard Smallwood and Vision performing Anthem of Praise, complete with, for some reason, Brazilian Portuguese subtitles.

The Bass Whisperer

conni_ellisor 1516_concert3 The Bass Whisperer is a concerto for electric bass and orchestra. Violinist and composer Conni Ellisor wrote it in collaboration with Victor Wooten, who you can read more about in the “Artists” section of this Digital Guide. Both composers are Nashville based, and while they each warmly embrace the historic folk and country music that the city is best known for, they also take inspiration from the cosmopolitan and diverse metropolis that is modern day Nashville. It’s a community in which Ellisor can write a piece for mountain dulcimer and strings, Blackberry Winter, as authentically as she can Diaspora, which is West African inspired. Wooten, meanwhile, grew out of an R&B tradition but is perhaps best known as a member of the Flecktones, led by banjo player Béla Fleck. It’s no coincidence that Ellisor has also written a Banjo Concerto specifically for Fleck.

The Bass Whisperer marks the first time, however, that Ellisor has co-written a work in a full collaboration. It started with Wooten’s grooves, which Ellisor analyzed to build the orchestral and textural ideas. For Wooten’s part, he envisioned the bass in its role as a support instrument, playing underneath rather than on top of the orchestra, as is the case with most concertos. That’s not to say that Wooten’s virtuosity is buried, and in fact Ellisor has structured the movements so that there are solos that are improvised in the manner of jazz.

The Nashville Symphony put together this video for the September 2014 world premiere of the work.

You can learn more about both composers at and

Fourth Chicakasaw Variations


Michael Gandolfi is an American composer that has a broad range of musical interests encompassing not only contemporary concert music but also jazz, blues and rock. His earliest musical involvement was in rock and jazz improvisation beginning at age eight as a self-taught guitarist. As his improvisational skills developed he became increasingly interested in music composition and began formal study in his early teens.

Fourth Chicakasaw Variations is about the city of Memphis, a cradle of southern music and culture. It finds its way into this program for two related reasons. First, Gandolfi drew from the spiritual I’ve Been ’Buked and I’ve Been Scorned to fashion the work, thus making it kin to the gospel music that opens and closes the concert. Secondly, Memphis is the city where Dr. King delivered his famous “Mountaintop” speech on the night before he was assassinated, and one of Chicakasaw’s 11 variations marks this momentous event. Musically, there are moments that suggest Copland, soulful passages of praise, heartbreaking songs of mourning and tributes to jazz, blues and soul. has a wealth of information about the composer. You can get a sense of how the composer can work with a theme to create a full and varied work in this video of his Flourishes and Meditations on a Renaissance Theme.

Gospel and inspirational music

Dr. King drew much strength from gospel music, and the Civil Rights movement itself was inexorably linked to the tradition by its message of comfort and triumph in the face of adversity, just as Negro spirituals did over 100 years earlier during slavery. To conclude the concert, long-time collaborators the Apostolic Church of God Sanctuary Choir will sing a selection of spiritual and inspirational music arranged for gospel choir and orchestra.

Gospel music is very much a contemporary form. Composers like Maurette Brown continue the tradition, finding new ways and rhythms to keep the spirit alive for younger audiences. A very up-to-date extension of the tradition will be heard tonight: Glory, the Academy Award winning theme to the film Selma, written by John Legend, Common and Rhymefest.

That most famous of Civil Rights anthems, We Shall Overcome, was written in the 1950s. As has been the Sinfonietta’s tradition for over a decade, our tribute to Dr. King will conclude with this enduring message of hope and faith.

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 John Legend and Common performing Glory in the official music video.


We can think of no better way to honor Dr. King’s work than to remind everyone joining us for this celebration that meaningful change only takes place when we take responsibility AND take action. The Sinfonietta is proud to invite the students of Perspectives Charter School to join us and help all of us in making a personal commitment to peace. Like Dr. King, Dr. Paul Freeman and the many activists in generations before them, these students exemplify leadership and our individual obligations to be change makers within our community.

Join us in Grainger Hall to commit to peace in the following ways:
1. Participate in a peace circle.
2. Share the ways you create change in your community in our #iamforpeace photobooth
3. Sign up for Perspectives' annual summer rally!
4. Participate tonight in our concert-ending peace march out to the lobby!

Research and copywriting by Don Macica.

Don is the founder of Home Base Arts Marketing Services and a contributing writer to several online publications including Agúzate and Arte y Vida Chicago. 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.