Gateways Festival Orchestra review-With Take 6 at Symphony Center, Chicago

Fri, Apr 19, 2024 -- Chicago Symphony Orchestra Symphony Center Presents Gateway Music Festival Final concert featuring Take 6 © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2024
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On April 19, 2024, the New York based all-Black Gateways Festival Orchestra, led by Conductor Anthony Parnther, and joined by a cappella group Take 6 performed at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave., Chicago, as the finale of a week-long residency in the Chicagoland area. The concert was a fully realized ambitious program including Black composers’ classical works, two sets of variations, and seven selections including an encore by guest artists/ vocalists Take 6.

The evening opened with Worship:  A Concert Overture, 2001, by Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, a brief tone poem (6 minutes) written for large orchestral ensemble and reflecting- as does Chicagoan Margaret Allison Bonds’ Montgomery Variations, 1963-64, the last piece performed by the Orchestra- an exposure to Black church music. Indeed, Perkinson’s piece is based on the Christian hymn Doxology, but a literal musical rendering of “Praise God from whom all blessings flow” is not actually heard- even in part-in Worship, although cunningly implied in phrasing and texture.  Bonds’ incredibly moving composition is a classical set of variations based on the gospel tune “I want Jesus to walk with me”. 

Take 6 performing with Gateways Festival Orchestra at Symphony Center, Chicago, April 19, 2024

Montgomery, a response to the 1963 Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, was lost and not recovered until 2017; it is the composer’s only surviving orchestral work. Structured in discrete titled segments, each reflecting an inherent mood, (DecisionPrayer MeetingMarchOne Sunday in The SouthLament and Benediction), the piece is powerful and poignant, moving audience members to tears. It’s a straight-up acknowledgement of the tragedy of race hatred, and the attempt to overcome sorrow with religious address. 

In between these 2 works, Gateways performed the Enigma, Variations on an Original Theme by Edward Elgar, Op.36, 1898-99. Elgar, a non-Black, was an encourager of Perkinson’s work; thus the inspired choice of the Enigma Variations in between Perkinson and Bonds. As to the enigma of its title, Elgar claimed to have hidden a musical mystery deep in the heart of his great work, noting “So the principal Theme never appears, even as in some late dramas…the chief character is never on the stage.”

Gateways Music Festival Orchestra conducted by Anthony Panther; April 19, 2024, Symphony Center, Chicago

The Gateways Music Festival Orchestra inspires through the power of their playing, rewriting the narrative of classical music, including Black composers in their repertoire, with a foundation of great musicians of African descent. The artistry of these musicians, their wonderful performance and joy in that performance, was led with grace, elegance, and strength this evening by Maestro Anthony Parnther.

In keeping with the concert as a whole, Take 6, (Claude McKnight, Mark Kibble, Joel Kibble, Dave Thomas, Alvin Chea and Khristian Dentley) a virtuoso a cappella group inducted into The Gospel Music Hall of Fame, delighted the Orchestra Hall audience with their ingenious arrangements, vocal power and range. Their style and scope crosses over from Jazz to blues, from soul to pop, with a healthy dollop of gospel tones infusing the perfectly in-sync performance. In addition, Joey Kibble, a motivational speaker, delivered an encouraging message of hope between the songs, exhorting the audience to stay strong, stay uplifted, not lose faith.

All photos by Todd Rosenberg Photography

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