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Sinfonietta unfurls evocative musical tapestry of a Langston Hughes African-American epic

Submitted by on Jan 14, 2018 – 3:14 pm

Preview: Composer Laura Karpman’s multi-styled setting of ‘Ask Your Mama’ spotlighted in Chicago Sinfonietta MLK concert Jan. 15.
By Lawrence B. Johnson

Chicago Sinfonietta’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. tribute concert is consistently the orchestra’s best-attended event of the year, says music director Mei-Ann Chen. But this year’s MLK affair – 7:30 p.m. on Jan. 15 at Orchestra Hall — will also be Sinfonietta’s most ambitious enterprise: composer Laura Karpman’s musically multicultural setting of Langston Hughes’ epic poem about the African-American experience, “Ask Your Mama.”

Written in 1960, Hughes’ sweeping verse narrative might be compared with August Wilson’s Pittsburgh-cycle of plays in its exploration of the texture, and indeed the resonance, of African- American life in the 20th century. Not only did Hughes subtitle his work “12 Moods for Jazz,” he made specific indications of the music he associated with various episodes – ranging from Louis Armstrong and Leontyne Price to Pigmeat Markham.

Taking the poet’s cue, Karpman incorporated the recorded music of these and other artists into her multimedia score, along with Hughes’ own voice and the voices of on-stage actors reciting the poems. It is a 104-minute, non-stop spectacle, a lyric pageant of black Americana.

“When I came across this project a couple of years ago, it became my goal to present it in Sinfonietta’s 30th anniversary season,” says Chen. “If anybody was going to do it in Chicago, I knew it should be us. But it’s quite an undertaking – more than 100 minutes with orchestra, coordinated laptops, jazz singers, an operatic soprano, the whole kitchen sink.”

The original soprano for the 2009 premiere of Karpman’s setting was the great Jessye Norman. In that role here will be Janai Brugger, a Chicago native who’s back in town for another reason – to sing the role of Liu in the current Lyric Opera of Chicago production of Puccini’s “Turandot.” The celebrated jazz vocalist Nnenna Freelon, who sang with Norman in the premiere, also will perform with Sinfonietta. The third featured soloist here will be the American actress and singer De’Adre Aziza.

Just as Chen was captured by Karpman’s complex setting, the composer was taken by Hughes’ musically sensitive poetry.

“It moved me tremendously,” says Karpman, a widely experienced composer for film and television. “It is profoundly patriotic, and sadly relevant. And having Hughes’ own extensive notes about the kind of music his envision for each poem – German lieder, 12-bar blues – African drums — was like working with the smartest director ever.

“It’s American to its bloody core, American in every sense. It’s all about the stylistic pluralities that make this country great, this idea of the melting pot, the mosh pit that we’re all in together.”

One of the work’s off-beat features, expressive of the poem’s community spirit: In addition to playing their instruments, the orchestra musicians have a vocal moment, singing Hughes’ text. in many respects, the work is free-form and fluid.

“The musical materials are meant to evolve,” Karpman says. “Every performance has morphed, and then there’s the past-to-present line of Langston’s recorded voice reciting as well as voices on stage. I think of it as a magical approach to time as a fluid circle. It’s beautiful to see what different people bring to it.”

Beautiful, yes, adds the conductor Chen, and very challenging.

“I really didn’t know whether we would be able to do this,” she says. “I mean, it is such a big undertaking for us. It’s such a mix, on so many levels: two laptops that have to be synched with the live voices and orchestra, musical styles that are all over the place – jazz, gospel, cha-cha! An alto sax has some improvisation built in. It’s like putting a complicated jigsaw puzzle together. Fun, but also scary.

“It’s a special opportunity for us and for our audience. The piece isn’t done very often, so most people probably won’t know it. But that’s all the more reason to come. I think people are going to be blown away.”

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