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Review: Chicago Sinfonietta: In ‘Seven Last Words of the Unarmed,’ a sobering, potent tribute to Dr. King

From Chicago Tribune

By Howard Reich

Trayvon Martin.
Eric Garner.
John Crawford.

Three unarmed black men, among many, killed by police in notorious incidents that sparked nationwide debate and anguish.

They were more than just headlines, though. To composer Joel Thompson, they were men executed for a very particular crime: their race.

Thus Thompson penned “Seven Last Words of the Unarmed,” a haunting oratorio that received its Chicago premiere in Orchestra Hall on Monday night, not coincidentally on the national holiday celebrating the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Bravo to the Chicago Sinfonietta for making Thompson’s opus the centerpiece of its annual “MLK Tribute Concert.” It would have been very easy for the Sinfonietta to have served up an evening of inspirational fare (which was not lacking from this program). But by applying the combined forces of the orchestra and the Adrian Dunn Singers to Thompson’s probing composition, the Sinfonietta chose to confront head-on the racism that Dr. King fought against.

Like Dr. King, the seven men remembered in Thompson’s composition died violently and too young. Unlike Dr. King, they were not symbols or icons – at least not while they were still breathing. In a way, that makes their deaths still more unfathomable.

Thompson told the audience before “Seven Last Words” began that nothing these men did merited the death penalty.

Sinfonietta’s “MLK Tribute Concert” opened with assistant conductor Jonathan Rush and singer Kymberli Joye, his sister, performing a rousing arrangement of Patty Griffin’s “Up to the Mountain”; Joye, the Adrian Dunn Singers and guest conductor Armstrong digging deeply into John Legend and Common’s “Glory” (from the film “Selma”); and Sinfonietta music director Mei-Ann Chen presiding over a warmly stated symphonic arrangement of the spiritual “Deep River.”

Chen closed the evening with the finale of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, “Resurrection,” which featured sumptuous work from soprano Summer Hassan, mezzo-soprano Leah Dexter and the combined North Central College Concert Choir and the Roosevelt University Conservatory Chorus. The epic score taxed the Sinfonietta’s resources, but conductor Chen shaped it to telling effect.

Composer Thompson’s “Seven Last Words,” however, gave this evening its prevailing message and will be remembered long after the rest has been forgotten.

Read the full review.