I've attended a lot of these, and inspirational as they can be, they do tend to follow something of a blueprint. There were even a couple that had the whiff of complacency about them, self-congratulatory affairs that seemed to trot out Dr. King's memory as a plot device, awash in the glow of elevated humanity. Look how far we've come!
The Chicago Sinfonietta did something different last night, something that these grim times demanded, something that acknowledged that things are still pretty messed up in 21st Century America.
Classical music seasons are planned over a year in advance, and if you look at the current Sinfonietta season brochure, printed last spring, you will see Young Chicago Authors mentioned as narrators of Aaron Copland's Lincoln Portrait. You will see Sujari Britt, a remarkably poised and insanely talented cellist who happens to be a 13 year old black girl. You will note the name of 15 year old Jherrard Hardeman, a composer whose Symphony No. 3 (!) was being presented for the first time by a professional orchestra. You'll read that an actor will recite some lines from Dr. King's I Have a Dream speech and that a high school choir would sing. Finally, you'll see the treacly copy, "This annual crowd-pleaser celebrates the future with the boundless optimism of today's youth." Ouch.
Then 2014 happened, the deaths of two black men (one a boy, really) at the hands of the authorities and the further indignity of those same authorities getting off scott free, cleared of guilt without even the benefit of a trial. And then the protests and, yes, riots. And then the Fox News led backlash, the blaming of the victims.
Somewhere in the administrative offices of the Chicago Sinfonietta, it occurred to somebody that optimism was at a premium and that a "crowd-pleaser", blind to the turmoil, might not entirely be the right way to go. A celebratory MLK remembrance in times when there is very little to celebrate was not what was needed.
So, yes, all the feel good stuff was still there, but the context was changed dramatically by letting the Young Chicago Authors write and read their own stories reflecting on MLK and what it's like to be young and black in America.
"I had a nightmare that the past was present
Rope became gun
Whip became chokehold
Gasping for air in the bowels of European ships
Became completely breathless
Emmit Till became Michael, I mean Trayvon, I mean Jordan, I mean Eric
I mean more names that I can say
I mean more corpses than I can count"
Those are the words of Moriah Dowd, one of four young poets who contributed to I Have a Dream (Remix). It doesn't stop there. Poet after poet stepped to the mic, expressing anguish and frustration, but also anger and determination. And, in the midst of it all, some fleeting sense of hope, tempered by harsh reality. Another piece, What Would MLK Say?, lays bare the way the powerful absolve themselves of responsibility and deny their complicity; "They use his name as their saving grace, their golden umbrella, As if they are guilt free. They try to make me the guilty one... as if it's our fault we are dying."
The rest of the tribute concert was predictably inspiring, perhaps all the more so in the context of Young Chicago Authors' reality check. Sujari Britt was brilliant. Jherrard Hardeman, who guest conducted his own piece, was poised and confident, his composition marrying the elegiac quality of Barber's Adagio to the rhythmic minimalist pulse of John Adams. Actor Wayne K. Woods portrayal of Dr. King was note perfect, even as he highlighted the not-so-hidden militancy of parts of the speech we don't often hear. Lincoln Portrait was inspirational as the Young Chicago Authors read the 150 year old words of the 16th president. The Waubonsie Valley High School Mosaic Choir was a marvelous thing to behold, singing freedom songs of Nelson Mandela alongside contemporary gospel, the shining of their young faces matching the power of their voices.
The concert closed in its traditional fashion with everyone, audience included, joining hands to sing the Civil Rights era anthem We Shall Overcome. I'll admit right here that this has never been my favorite part of the concert. I viewed it as a nostalgic remnant of an earlier time, a play to older members of the audience who lived it. That all changed last night. The "Civil Rights Era" is hardly over. Hell, it's hardly begun, and if we don't overcome someday, well, we are all screwed for sure.
I wrote the program notes for this concert back in December, when the turmoil of Ferguson and Staten Island were still headline news, and I hoped at that time I would accurately predict the spirit of the concert. I've had a few people tell me the notes were spot on, so if you'd like to read them drop me a line and I'll send them to you. Young Chicago Authors also made the complete text of last night's poems available to the audience. Words on paper are different than voices crying out, but they are well worth reading on their own, so if you contact the Sinfonietta or YCA I'm reasonably sure they could send them to you.