Thursday, June 6, 2019 William Grant Still's "In Memoriam" at University of Chicago

William Grant Still (1895-1978)

June 5, 2019

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?

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