Review: “Fantasie Négre” at the South Shore Cultural Center

By M.L. Rantala
Classical Music Critic

The Chicago Music Association was created in March of 1919 to provide a performance venue for classically trained Black musicians who had traditionally been denied access to major concert halls and opera houses throughout the U.S. In July of the same year, musicians from Washington, D.C., met with members of the newly created CMA in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood and created the National Association of Negro Musicians (NANM). CMA became the first branch of NANM.

This past Sunday, CMA offered a splendid concert entitled “Fantasie Négre: A Celebration of My People” in the Paul Robeson Theater of the South Shore Cultural Center. The title was inspired by the great African American composer Florence Price’s solo piano piece entitled “Fantasie Négre.” This was the first work on the program, with pianist Casey Robards offering a fluid interpretation that was enhanced by the lithe dancing of Daysha Brown, Laura Reese and Philana Sanders.

Virginia Prince and Marilyn Grodrian presented duo-piano arrangements of Scott Joplin’s “Gladiolus rag” and Andrae Crouch’s “My Tribute.” The former was a little slow and too smooth, while they found all the sweetness in the latter.

This beautifully varied program also included new music. “Summer Sketches I and II, Trio for Clarinet, Violin, and Cello” by Dolores White were fresh and airy. In the first case, the music was warm and atmospheric, and in the second, much hotter even though the tempo was slower. Dileep Gangolli on clarinet, Shawnit Tyus on violin and Victor Soleto cello did fine work, under the direction of the composer.

Baritone Robert Sims was a huge hit with the audience while performing two spirituals: “Lit’l Boy” and “Is There Anybody Here Who Loves My Jesus.” This was immediately followed by more crowd-pleasing music offered by tenor Rodrick Dixon (“Somewhere” from “West Side Story”), and soprano Alfreda Burke (“You’ll Never Walk Alone” from “Carousel”). The two of them teamed up for a fascinating account of “I Will Stand.”

After the intermission there was more dancing, this time from Contemporary Youth Group: Iona Calhoun School of Ballet. Their “Revelations” — with original choreography by Alvin Ailey, adapted by Iona Calhoun, Kisha Taylor and Hollee Mangrum Willis — was sprightly, beautiful and thoroughly engaging.

Poetry was also on the program, represented by the work of Wendell Weaver, and read with dramatic flair by his wife Frances Weaver.

Tenor Henry Pleas had the perfect approach to “His Eye is on the Sparrow,” singing with restraint and ending with a gossamer lightness.

George Cooper proved his abilities as both composer and pianist with his solo piano composition “Voyage of the Drum.”

Sopranos Jonita Lattimore, Anisha McFarland and Elizabeth Norman took the stage as TreDiva, and wowed the audience with their shimmering voices and easy high notes. Their version of Gershwin’s “Summertime” had lots of surprises, and their rendition of “Scandalized my Name” had lots of fun.

There was a Duke Ellington medley and a flashy performance of Richard Smallwood’s “Total Praise.” And just when you thought there could not be more punch, the end of the event proved you wrong. With George Cooper at the Steinway grand, mezzo-contralto Barbara Wright-Pryor, also the president of the Chicago Music Association, gave a moving rendition of Duke Ellington’s “Come Sunday.”

The concert closed with a splendidly entertaining “Make Them Hear You” from “Ragtime,” brought to life by TenorsNoir: Sean Harris, Cornelius Johnson and Jeffrey Burish. Earlier in the concert they served up a gorgeous account of Puccini’s “Nessun dorma.”

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