The Chicago Sinfonietta Honors Dr. King with Tribute Concerts

The Chicago Sinfonietta will honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. with two local performances featuring award nominated music inspired by famed African American poet Langston Hughes.

Since its founding under the late maestro Dr. Paul Freeman, a HistoryMaker, in 1987, The Chicago Sinfonietta has celebrated the life and legacy of Dr. King with spirited performances throughout the years. Jim Hirsch, chief executive officer of the Chicago Sinfonietta, said Freeman’s acknowledgement of Dr. King’s work can be traced back to when Freeman himself met the civil rights giant only weeks before his assassination. Hirsch said the tribute concerts began in the late 80’s as a commemoration of King’s life and principles. He said 13 years ago the tribute concerts became an annual occurrence.

Led by conductor Mei-Ann Chen, the Chicago Sinfonietta will be performing pieces from “Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz,” composed by Emmy Award-winning composer Laura Karpman. “Ask Your Mama,” which has been nominated for three Grammys, was inspired by a poem written by Hughes, according to Hirsch. He said the music has only been performed three times previously leading up to the Chicago Sinfonietta’s performances. Included in the performance will be vocalists Grammy nominated Nnenna Freelon, Janai Brugger, and De’Adre Aziza and spoken word artists Patricia Frazier and Kee Stein from Young Chicago Authors, a youth poetry organization.

“We think that anytime we empower a great voice or showcase a great voice like Langston Hughes that really honors Dr. King’s legacy because he fought so hard so that everyone could be heard and appreciated, celebrated and understood,” said Hirsch.

“I think it’s really about empowering and embracing diversity and different voices. Hughes was a very important voice and a very important viewpoint for the African American community. Dr. King was a champion for everyone but especially for the ones who did not have the same access to the same opportunities.”

The decision to perform “Ask Your Mama” was in line with the Chicago Sinfonietta’s mission of “modeling and promoting diversity, inclusion, and both racial and cultural equity in the arts.” Highlighting rarely performed works too played a role, according to Hirsch. The combination of symphonic music, jazz, and spoken word that “Ask Your Mama” presents really hit a “sweet spot,” he said.

“We like our founder, Paul Freeman, champion underrepresented musicians, underrepresented composers, underrepresented soloists,” said Hirsch. “We like to champion those works especially those that reflect the diverse voices. We are always searching for stuff like that and also things that stretch people’s idea of what a symphony orchestra should be doing and that kind of repertoire.”

The Chicago Sinfonietta, with a roster of 62 musicians, is unique among its contemporaries given the diversity of their musicians.

“We are the most diverse orchestra in the country; whereas most orchestras go on the stage with maybe 2 to 4 percent of their members being from diverse backgrounds, we go on stage with anywhere from 30 to 40 to 45 percent of our musicians being from diverse backgrounds,” said Hirsch.

The family friendly music promises not only to be economical but lively as well, according to Hirsch. He said tickets can be purchased for as low as $10.

“This is not a stuffy orchestra concert, this is a concert that will feature world class jazz, gospel, opera, spoken word, and it’s an experiential thing,” said Hirsch.

This year’s two performances will be held at Pfeiffer Hall, 310 E. Benton Ave., Naperville, IL on Sunday, Jan. 14 and at Chicago Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave., on Monday, Jan. 15.

For more information about the Chicago Sinfonietta or ticket information, visit


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