Chicago Sinfonietta debuts JacobTV’s “Mountain Top” for annual Martin Luther King Jr. tribute

Mei-Ann Chen
Chicago Sun-Times

By Kyle Macmillan

No classical music organization, and perhaps no arts group of any kind, in Chicago consistently presents more stylistically varied, culturally diverse and audience-involving programs than the Chicago Sinfonietta.

The chamber orchestra provided the latest proof Monday evenng with a boisterous, big-hearted community celebration of the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. that got Orchestra Hall attendees on their feet, clapping and singing along.

The annual musical ode to the famed civil rights leader has long been a signature offering of the ensemble, which has put ethnic and cultural diversity at the forefront of everything it does since its founding in 1987.

Mei-Ann Chen, the Sinfonietta’s intrepid music director, anchored this year’s tribute with the American premiere of “Mountain Top” (2008) by avant-garde Dutch composer Jacob Ter Veldhuis, a.k.a. JacobTV, who was at the performance.

Beyond paying homage to King’s final 1968 speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” the work incorporates his actual spoken words, with JacobTV sampling them and then building a musical structure keyed to their pitch and cadence.

Seated centerstage, electronic keyboardist Michael Keefe “played” King’s words, sometimes heard as complete sentences but more often were fragmented into phrases and even single words that were rhythmically repeated, intercut and overlapped.

The text simultaneously flashed on a giant screen in graphically engaging ways, giving the work a well-integrated multimedia component. Unfortunately, though, many of the background video images were difficult to see except for the powerful, ghostly close-ups of King at the end.

Roosevelt University’s fine 30-voice Chicago College of Performing Arts Conservatory Chorus and a percussion ensemble, which included two marimbas and a vibraphone, echoed, underlined and punctuated King’s words and added tonal color and atmosphere.

The work, which ran a little less than 15 minutes, was admirably inventive and compelling. But the sometimes repetitive music did not have the depth, contrast and complexity necessary to achieve the moving impact of some other pieces with similar fusions of music and recorded speech, such as John Adams’ 9-11 remembrance, “On the Transmigration of Souls.”

In something of a surprise, Chen broke from the printed line-up, and opened the evening with an homage to another human rights icon, Nelson Mandela — with a performance of the South African national anthem.

Next came a vibrant take on the Overture to Giuseppe Verdi’s opera, “La Forza del Destino (The Force of Destiny)” — its title clearly meant in this context as a reference to King. It was followed by Richard Strauss’ “Horn Concerto No. 1 in E flat major, Op. 11,” with soloist Nicole Cash, associate principal horn player of the San Francisco Symphony. Her playing was poised and technically secure but emotionally uninvolving.

The crowd-pleasing second half showcased classic and contemporary spirituals, starting with Morton Gould’s jazzy if over-stylized “Revival, a Fantasy on Six Spirituals,” and continuing with “Every Praise (is to our God)” and two other soul-infused selections highlighted by the ebullient, never-static Apostolic Church of God Sanctuary Choir.

The concert concluded with an audience sing-along, featuring “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” from “The Sound of Music” and, keeping with tradition, “We Shall Overcome” — songs that spoke to King’s timeless plea for all people to rise above adversity and come together in unity.