Chicago Sinfonietta presents a concert fit for King

Mei-Ann Chen
Chicago Sun-Times

By Kyle MacMillan

The music carried a message Sunday afternoon, as the Chicago Sinfonietta and an impressive array of guest artists honored the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.

The annual concert is a signature event for the ensemble, which has made ethnic and cultural diversity a central part of its mission since its founding in 1987.

For this year’s edition of the musical tribute, music director Mei-Ann Chen put together a well-varied program with ties to Latin America, Africa and this country’s own rich African-American heritage.

The sold-out opening performance in the Wentz Concert Hall in Naperville was a little wobbly at first, with a performance of “The Oak” that never really cohered.

The 10-minute work from 1940 was written by Florence Price, an unfairly forgotten African-American composer who is enjoying something of a renaissance. But unlike some of her other works with more overt references to the blues, “The Oak” was too anchored in recycled European romanticism.

The orchestra quickly found its footing, though, with Chen leading a deft, nuanced version of Samuel Barber’s famed “Adagio for Strings,” which in this context was easily heard as an elegy to King.

The first half ended with what was arguably the concert’s highlight: Aaron Copland’s spirited Concerto for Clarinet and String Orchestra, with a superb solo performance by Anthony McGill.

Best known for his appearance at President Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration, McGill could hardly have been more comfortable in this piece, delivering a warm, appealing, multi-dimensional sound. He brought a suitably easy, gentle feel to the reflective first section, romped through the kinetic, dance-like cadenza and then infused the final jazzy movement with a wonderfully free-spirited feel.

Chen and the orchestra were right there with him all the way, offering energetic accompaniment, with pianist Maria Honigschnabel deserving special mention.

Following Obo Addy’s less-than-successful fusion of African percussion and symphonic music in “Wawshishijay,” the second half got onto firmer footing with “I’m a Soldier,” a spiritual suite arranged by Lena McLin.

Bass-baritone Eric Owens was supposed to have served as soloist (and conducted the “Adagio”), but he was forced to cancel because of a back injury. Ably stepping in for him was baritone Robert Sims, for whom the work was composed.

If there had been an audience’s choice award, it undoubtedly would have gone to the program’s last guest, the Waubonsie Valley High School Mosaic Choir of Aurora. Channeling “Up With People,” this talented group presented super-charged, impeccably realized versions of four works, including a Balinese song, “Janger,” and a rock-tinged take on the spiritual, “This is My Prayer.”

Following tradition, Chen closed the evening by inviting the audience to join hands and sing “We Shall Overcome” — a moving expression of King’s resounding call for unity and brotherhood. Another performance follows Monday at Symphony Center.