“We Shall Overcome”: Chicago Sinfonietta’s tribute to MLK united a crowd of hundreds and exemplified the power of music

Hundreds of music lovers gathered at Symphony Center Monday to celebrate and honor the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. in song and express hope for humanity.

The first piece on the program was Beethoven’s “Egmont Overture.” Written in tribute to the man who stands alone in trying times, the overture garnered a standing ovation despite its early placement in the program.

The orchestra was then joined on stage by Kenneth Woods, the program’s orator, who read an excerpt from one of King’s most famous speeches.

“One hundred years later, the Negro still is not free,” he said. “One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.”

As the crowd’s murmurs of agreement grew into shouts proclaiming “Amen!,” the orchestra’s lower sections began to play a somber duet. The lights changed blue,and the audience fell silent as the ensemble began the “Epitaph for a Man Who Dreamed.”

The audience’s trance was maintained throughout the next piece, “The People Could Fly,” which featured Woods and violin soloist Kyle Dickson in a dramatization of an African American folktale depicting slaves magically learning how to fly back to Africa, and ultimately, transcending oppression, according to the program notes.

“This is my second time attending this event, and I do think musical performance is a good way to honor MLK,” said Twyler Jenkins, 47, of Bronzeville. “The selection that they just played, it was a little bit different because it was a symphony with a tribute along with it. Acknowledging the rich cultural history of the African American history—not only Dr. King but also the particular selection about slavery—is such a great representation of what this culture is all about.”

After intermission, the concert continued with three more programmed works. The applause grew louder and louder after each piece. Musicians in the orchestra said the music and its significance to the audience members struck a chord with them as well.

“There’s nothing more powerful than music cause you can bring people together,” said violist Seth Pae, 27. “I know that I had personally invited some guests that were from musical backgrounds and nonmusical backgrounds—just all over. There are people in the audience who had maybe never been to a live music concert before and came just because of the theme of diversity. It’s the one medium that everyone can really relate to.”

Sinfonietta members agreed that music is the most important way—and possibly the sole way—to go about resolving today’s social and political conflicts.

“I think [music] is probably the one thing that will help to resolve today’s conflicts,” Pae said. “The message of bringing people together and finding common ground: I think that’s a really important message that music relays.”

The performance was not the first time that Chicago Sinfonietta had performed a tribute in honor of MLK.

Chicago Sinfonietta’s origins trace back to a rising conductor’s chance meeting with King in 1968, according to the program notes. The group’s founder, Paul Freeman, ran into King in an airport in Atlanta, and when Freeman explained to him that he had been chosen to guest conduct the Atlanta Symphony, King proclaimed the classical world to be “the last bastion of elitism.”

Two decades later, Freeman founded the Chicago Sinfonietta as a way to make classical music more accessible to those outside of the elite.

The Sinfonietta’s tribute to MLK closed with the ever-familiar tune “We Shall Overcome.” Linking arms across the auditorium, the crowd got on its feet and sang along, no one breaking the chain for any reason–even to wipe away the tears forming in their eyes.

Tubist Charlie Schuchat, 57, said it’s a tradition that the orchestra end with “We Shall Overcome.”

“And to look out and see everyone arm in arm; it’s so beautiful. To be making music and then seeing that happening out there is just wonderful,” he said.

In a time that many have described as an increasingly divisive era, hope is often forgotten. But moments like these may be enough to allow people to overcome that notion.

“I think this year is gonna be tough,” Schuchat said. “Really tough. But something like this—it makes you feel good.”

Written for JOUR278 News Reporting — Jan. 21, 2019

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