Celebrating Dr. King, President Obama and Black Liberation

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critics

Inauguration Sunday found Music in the Loft hosting a sold-out recital that honored the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., commemorated the second inauguration of Barack Obama and celebrated the notable successes of African Americans in fighting oppression.

The program of all American music was created and performed by Chicago soprano Jonita Lattimore, collaborating with pianist Paul Hamilton.

Lattimore was great at the bigs and the smalls, and pianist the same. The difference is that she had lots of nuance and character in the between moments. The pianist didn’t. But it was Lattimore’s afternoon, and her artistry won the day.

She opened the concert with Songs from “Only Heaven,” with music by Ricky Ian Gordon and texts by Langston Hughes. Lattimore was meltingly gorgeous with “Luck,” and with “Stars” she had heart-stopping moments.

Two of the composers represented on the program were present at the concert. Two songs from “Women’s Lives and Loves” by Lita Grier were beautifully realized, and made the more poignant by Grier’s own insightful remarks.

What is so gripping about these songs by Grier is that they communicate the sometimes ordinary, sometimes extraordinary sentiments of dead people (Anne Rutledge and Sarah Brown) with such buoyant life. These past lives are infused with the bittersweet emotion as well as the life-learned wisdom of a person who knows she cannot change a single thing. The dignity of death is pervasive, convincing, and – most important – comforting. Grier has achieved something remarkable, making a one-sided conversation with ghosts something not simply edifying but uplifting, and Lattimore was just the singer to effect it. The soprano rejected the easy route of powering her way through it (and she can power her way through just about anything, I am convinced) and saw this as music which wants the subtexts of melancholy and despair, hope and inspiration, as well as the ordinary footsteps of life to be dispensed in careful, sometimes casual measure. Lattimore didn’t merely teach us about singing; she taught us about life and death. It was a memorable and splendid lesson.

Where did this remarkable singer learn such things? Perhaps from a high school teacher. The following song set was by Lena J. McLin, who taught at Hyde Park’s Kenwood Academy for 36 years. McLin told me that shewanted her students to learn about God, but didn’t think she could do that herself, so she left that work to Handel. She had her students sing the complete “Messiah” every year. She carted them to complete operas. Even her students now famous to us outside the classical music scene — Mandy Patinkin, Chaka Khan, and R. Kelly, to name a few — were steeped in classical music at her feet as a way of instilling in them the highest standards music has to offer.

The set of three songs by McLin were inspirational and written in a gospel style. The last, “If They Ask You Why He Came,” a tribute to Dr. King, was a show-stopping way to end the first half of the concert.

The event closed with “The Conversion: A Song Cycle of Spirituals,” by John L. Cornelius II. It was a marvelous collection of songs that Lattimore delivered while offering quiet, meditative moments along with splashy, full-volume joy.

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The energetic and genre-bending string quartet Brooklyn Rider came to Mandel Hall on a recent Friday to dispense their unique mix of traditional and on-the-edge classical music.

They opened the evening with Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 12, No. 1. Their performance was polished with notable lightness and restraint in the canzonetta.

The rest of the concert featured the music of living composers. Christina Courtin’s “tralala” offered pleasing folksong-like melodies while Dana Lyn’s “Maintenance Music” was infused with lots of small but interesting ideas. Vijay Iyer’s “Dig the Say” (inspired by James Brown) verged on annoying, with extended bits where instruments were abandoned and the musicians stomped and clapped and snapped their fingers. It was more like a sobriety test than music.

Brooklyn Rider’s own “Seven Steps” was best when it generated a palpable urgency. “The Alchemist” by John Zorn deftly combined disparate ideas and moods. The concert closed with “Three Miniatures for String Quartet” by Brooklyn Rider violinist Colin Jacobsen. These were marvelous vignettes with melodic power and a hypnotic sense of undulation.

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Baroque Band continues to bring some of the most fascinating British musicians to the heart of Hyde Park. Their most recent concert, “Gone with the Wind,” at Augustana Lutheran Church, 5500 S. Woodlawn Ave., showcased the brilliance of recorder virtuoso Piers Adams.

Adams has the fascination of a fairy tale character: he sports an impish smile, often inserts a few dance steps into his performance, and is full of bounces and jumps. This is combined with gorgeous playing characterized by clear punctuation, crying sweetness, and the popping explosions of rapid runs. He wowed the audience with music by Telemann and Sammartini in the first half of the evening, and followed up with two Vivaldi concertos in the second half. His bright sound, energetic pacing, and marvelous musicality were splendid.

Garry Clarke led his band of musicians with his usual flair and natural elasticity. In Francesco Onofrio Manfredini’s Concerto Grosso, Op. 3, No. 11 violinists Joan Plana and Wendy Benner were standouts in a fine ensemble performance.