U. of C. orchestra, choral groups bring power to spiritual music

Baritone Bill McMurray (left to right), soprano Kimberly Jones, mezzo-soprano Leah Dexter, and tenor Adrian Dunn with Barbara Schubert (back to camera) performing “A Child of Our Time.”(Photo by M.L. Rantala)

By M.L. Rantala
Music critic

Classical music events often have a unifying theme or structure. Sometimes the connection between works on the program is weak, but the program succeeds because the compositions are strong as are the performances.

But sometimes you experience a program which is fully unified yet with enough differences you feel you have gained insight into the ideas performed.

That was the case with the University of Chicago Symphony Orchestra concerts last weekend. On Saturday night and again on Sunday afternoon the orchestra was joined by the University of Chicago Chorus and the University of Chicago Motet Choir, all led by Barbara Schubert, for a marvelously well designed program of music.

The event was simply titled for the main work on the program, “A Child of Our Time” by Michael Tippett. That was enough to get my attention, that and the quartet of fine local singers selected as soloists for the Tippett. But when I got to Mandel Hall on Sunday afternoon, I found that the concert was more than that. The first half of the program, before “A Child of Our Time,” was music beautifully chosen to highlight one of the things Tippett was trying to do: to employ spirituals in a classical context.

The program opened with the orchestra’s performance of “In Memoriam: The Colored Soldiers Who Died for Democracy.” This stirring, beautiful work was composed by William Grant Still (1895-1978), a 20th-century American composer who gained remarkable traction in spite of the reduced opportunities afforded a Black composer at the time.

One of Still’s many gifts was his ability to meld more popular genres with the classical approach. His work is infused with elements of jazz, blues, American folk music, and the power of the Black spiritual.

Schubert led her student forces in an understated yet powerful performance of “In Memoriam.”. The work opens with an uncertain mood full of portent. The entrance of the strings brought tenderness, cradling a spiritual-like melody. Military strength is established with trumpets and drums. As the short tone poem draws to a close, we were treated to music of hope and even peacefulness. The work’s great accomplishment is to leave that hope uncertain: Are the soldiers now home and at peace with their families or are these merely the cherished memories of the past that a soldier remembers while he is dying?

“In Memoriam” was juxtaposed with “Spirituals for Orchestra” by another American composer, Morton Gould. Like Still, Gould drew on influences outside the classical tradition; he was an accomplished composer of music for Broadway. His ability to be catchy as well as crafty shines through in his “Spirituals for Orchestra.” The music is attractive, if less satisfying than the Still. It doesn’t always live up to the markings. The third movement, entitled “Protest,” is marked “brutal and crying out,” but the music isn’t up to the task of portraying a brutal protest as we have come to know them.

Between these were two spirituals performed by the University Chorus and Motet Choir, led by guest conductor Adrian Dunn. (The chorus’ music director is Mollie Stone, and James Kallembach serves in the same role for the Motet Choir.) Perhaps because of the placement of the chorus — at the very back of the stage and not very highly elevated — or because the singing forces were very imbalanced — the women outnumbered the men by a significant degree, the results were solid yet not completely satisfying.

The most memorable element of the concert was  Tippett’s “A Child of Our Time: An Oratorio for Soli, Chorus, and Orchestra.” Joining the orchestra, the chorus, and the motet choir were the Adrian Dunn Singers and four splendid soloists: soprano Kimberly Jones, mezzo-soprano Leah Dexter, tenor Adrian Dunn, and baritone Bill McMurray.

This large work, completed in 1941, is fascinating for its modern musical language which at times shifts gears entirely to present the composer’s own arrangements of Black spirituals. Additionally, the text is inspired by the events leading up to Kristallnacht. Was Tippett wrong to invoke spirituals when actually portraying the Holocaust? Did he appropriate the music of Black slaves for his own gain? These are questions which have sometimes plagued “A Child,” but it was clear that the performers at Mandel Hall were committed to the work, and they offered a moving and lovely performance.

Jones had forceful, floating high notes and a clear command of the music. Dexter is amazing at infusing character and power into her singing. Dunn had a remarkably pliant voice with control and authority. McMurray brought gravitas and nuance without having to rumble deep into bass territory.

The four soloists were enough to make this performance a winner, but they were aided at every turn by the enthusiasm of the massed chorus and the bright and sure-footed music from the orchestra