By Daniel Johanson
For this weekend’s holiday of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the Chicago Sinfionetta has assembled a program of works. This concert serves as a tribute to him in which the choir of CCPA is a featured performer. The program is a yearly endeavor put on by the orchestra, but this year there is something special planned.
Among works by Verdi and Strauss sits a modern Dutch avant-garde composer simply named “JacobTV.” This piece is an extensive work that features a recording of Dr. King’s “Mountaintop” speech, from the day before his assassination, in a multimedia performance that is a landmark in the repertoire.
Dr. Cheryl Frazes Hill, director of choirs here at CCPA comments directly on this, saying that, “It is music that should be heard and music that should be done. It stretches everybody: the audience, the performers and even the conductors.”
What this piece also does for the choir here at CCPA is show off its ability. The work took extensive rehearsal, not just in terms of time but in intensity.
“It’s a very challenging work, it’s the kind of work that you can’t spoon feed notes,” Frazes said. “The students have to be good musicians.”
Although currently on sabbatical to write a book on the Chicago Symphony Chorus’ founding director Margaret Hillis, Frazes returns for this project to serve as an able hand to guide these voices toward their lofty goal.
“You have to give students the ability to understand the patience they have to exhibit in those last four inches of improvement. It’s the difference between, ‘I know the notes and the rhythms, I know the words, I know the entrances and the cutoffs and I know how it’s going to feel,’ and ‘This is a really deep performance.’”
The teaching assistant for the choir, Natalie Ingrisano, who serves as a supplemental singer for this piece, has the perspective of seeing this professionalism firsthand.
“It looked challenging when I first opened the score, but it is really singable,” she said. “Now that we as an ensemble are able to tie all parts of it together—technical, musical, and emotional—it is an incredibly powerful experience performing it.”
The piece was originally performed in Amsterdam by professional singers, but this performance will serve as the North American premiere. The material for the soloists was very difficult, and for this reason CCPA was able to bring in some of its past graduates, including soprano Clarice Warrick.
“The Mountaintop piece is really moving,” she said. “You have the choir and the Sinfionetta percussion essentially accompanying Dr. King’s Speech. It helps to express the more powerful parts of his speech and adds a stronger emotional depth in only the way that music can.”
Frazes added, “We hired eight former students from this program, because our students, when they leave, know exactly how we work, and exactly what to expect.”
The work that the Chicago Sinfionetta’s music director, Mei-Ann Chen is doing is also crucial to a progression in the conducting field, which Frazes touched on.
“This conductor, I am so excited to work with her because as a woman, and as a conductor, I feel very connected to women in the field that are conducting orchestras in this glass-ceiling profession.”
Frazes added that Chen has a gift in the way she works with her orchestra and with choruses.
The choir’s experience spans operatic repertoire, classical sacred music, Dutch Avant-garde works, and even a recent engagement with the Rolling Stones.
This concert is a program that pushes and expands the work being done in the music world, and CCPA is playing a big role in the preparation and performance. It serves as a great tribute to one of the most important figures
in American social history.