The Concert for Peace at St. Sabina

Cellist Yo-Yo Ma (center) performs with the Chicago Children’s Choir, members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, and the St. Sabina Band at the Concert for Peace. – Todd Rosenberg

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

The Purpose Over Pain project attempts to help, through music, those who have experienced one of the most horrific experiences. It assists families who have lost loved ones to gun violence write songs commemorating the victim. Yo-Yo Ma has written about this project: “I think of the families of victims of violence that I have met and the musicians from the Civic Orchestra of Chicago and the songwriters who have worked with them. Their Purpose Over Pain project is art that not only remembers but is also a source of hope.”

Ma, a world-famous cellist and a creative consultant for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, participated in the project when he took part in the Concert for Peace at St. Sabina Church on Jun. 10.

Ma first met St. Sabina’s Father Pfleger in early 2017 and in June of that year the first Concert for Peace concert was held at the church. The second Concert for Peace, held a year later, added several Purpose Over Pain songs creating a moving and unforgettable experience.

At the beginning of the concert Father Michael L. Pfleger, who presides over Chicago’s largest Black congregation, said that “We come to celebrate history and we come to make history.” The television cameras were rolling, the still photograhers were clicking, and the journalists were scribbling. But none of us can adequately capture the emotion, including both despair as well as hope, that drenched that overcast afternoon.

Yo-Yo Ma was joined by a large number of musicians: members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, members of the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, the St. Sabina Band, the Chicago Children’s Choir (led by artistic director Josephine Lee), conductor Erina Yashima, and three solo singers. Together they lifted the spirits of those in the packed church.

The concert opened with the Chicago Children’s Choir singing “Believe in Love” by W. Michael Mitchell Owens III. The text was rather repetitive with lyrics that veered into the trite, but the music was pretty and the young singers infused it with enthusiasm and technical skill. It was a powerful way to open this Concert for Peace.

Then began several of the Purpose Over Pain songs. The songwriter came forward and spoke very briefly. Sometimes there was a spoken portion of the song, which the writer delivered, or they otherwise participated in the performance, adding to the depth and the emotion.

“One Day at a Time” by Tracy Brumfield was a tribute to Keshawn Slaughter. Mezzo-sopranos Sarah Ponder and Journey Allison, along with musicians from the Civic Orchestra, found the hopefulness of the song that featured a gorgeous flute introduction.

In “Peace and Love, Coby” by Diana Pierce for DeColbie “Coby” Esco, Sr., Ponder keenly expressed the fragility of the song while never stinting on the clear inner strength it also contained. The text was poignant, describing how since Coby’s death Diana Pierce has traveled the world always taking Coby’s shoes with her.

Anthanette Marshbanks wrote “One Red Rose” for Archie Lee Chambers, Jr.

Ponder sang with strength and richness while the Civic Orchestra players offered spirited support.

Soprano Takesha Meshé Kizart gave a beautiful performance of “Song for Terrell” by Trevon Bosley, written for Terrell Bosley. She was soulful and convincing. Ma took a back seat in this performance, but nonetheless added a powerful dimension by his presence and leadership.

“Hurricane” packed a double-wallop. Delphine Cherry wrote this song not for one victim of gun violence, but two. She has lost two children, many years apart, and her song, a jazz-inflected gospel piece, was given power by the attractive singing of Kizart.

There were non-vocal pieces on the program as well. Musicians from the St. Sabina Band were pure cool in their understated performance of “Peace” by Horace Silver.

When Yo-Yo Ma first appeared at the podium-cum-pulpet, before he finished saying “good afternoon” the crowd was on its feet with applause. He said that, “As a community, if one person is hurt, all of us are hurt” and those assembled knew exactly what he meant. “We’re here to bear witness for each other.”

He then introduced music by Dvorak, which he described as “music which honors nature.” He was the soloist, playing with the Civic Orchestra, of “Silent Woods.” His playing was lyrical, his cello yielding singing, sighing, and crying sounds, and Yashima led a performance with crisp edges and lovely legato.

A small number of musicians from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra joined Ma for Bach’s Air from Suite No. 3 in D Major, BWV 1068. There was elegance, there was warmth, and there was beauty.

The concert closed with all the musicians joining together for a performance of “I Need You to Survive” by David Frasier and Hezekiah Walker. Many in the congregation knew the song and sang along at times. Father Pfleger, who at this point in the concert was standing only a few feet from me, sang along as well and held up his right hand, as if holding a candle in the darkness. He had just spoken his last words of the event, describing Ma as “a gift from God.” The music served not only to join the large array of musicians together in their craft, but to join the listeners present in a message of hope. And a message of peace.

It was a remarkable concert, not one I will soon forget.