In classical music, like many other things, context matters.
Compositions can speak for themselves anywhere, but they take on heightened meaning in certain settings. Think of Leonard Bernstein leading Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 or the lone cellist who defied snipers and played Albinoni’s Adagio in G minor in ruined buildings during the 1990s siege of Sarajevo.
Sunday afternoon the setting was St. Sabina Church in a South Side neighborhood that has seen more than its share of violence. Under the auspices of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Negaunee Music Institute, celebrated cellist Yo-Yo Ma and an array of singers and instrumentalists took part in the second “Concert for Peace,” replacing blasts of gunfire with the sounds of music.
An overflow crowd of about 1,000 packed pews and added chairs for a program that featured adults and youths, amateurs and professionals, acoustic and electronic instruments — all in a spirit of shared hope and community.
The impetus for the event was a visit by Ma, who has served as the symphony’s creative consultant since 2010, a job that involves outreach to neighborhoods across the city. After hearing about the church and its activist pastor, the Rev. Michael Pfleger, he stopped by one Sunday morning about 1½ years ago and offered his help.
“A lot of people tell me they want to help and do nothing,” Pfleger said during a press conference before the event, standing arm in arm with Ma. But two weeks later, he got a call assuring him that Ma was serious, and the cellist’s involvement led to what is so far two concerts at the church.
“He used his gift to invite people to come not downtown, not to Symphony Center, not to Grant Park, but to come to 78th Place,” Pfleger said.
The heart of the program were five songs written by family members of victims of gun violence, such as “Peace and Love, Coby,” written by Diana Pierce in honor of DeColbie “Coby” Esco Sr. who was killed in 2012 at age 30. These pieces were created as part of St. Sabina’s Purpose for Pain program, which in partnership with the Negaunee Institute brought participants together with three composers and musicians from the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, who also provided accompaniment.
Each song was performed by one or two of three singers — soprano Takesha Meshé Kizart, mezzo-soprano Sarah Ponder and mezzo-soprano Journey Allison — who invested all of them with the dignity and emotional fervor they deserved.
Of the two classical selections, none was more powerful than the Air from J.S. Bach’s Suite No. 3 in D major, BWV 1068, performed by Ma and four symphony musicians. More than almost anyone else’s, the composer’s eloquent, uncluttered music cuts to the essence of what it means to be human.
“I’m not here to say that music is going to solve our problems,” Ma said. “We’re here to bear witness to each other.”
Beginning and ending the program were two uplifting songs — “Believe in Love” and “I Need You to Survive” — ebulliently delivered by about 50 members of the Chicago Children’s Choir and its artistic director, Josephine Lee. The St. Sabina Band contributed a breezy take on Horace Silver’s “Peace.”
Among the biggest fans of the concert was Daniel Tolbert, 11, a South Side resident who has studied cello for seven years and is attending the prestigious Interlochen (Michigan) Arts Camp this summer. He came for one reason: Ma.
“He’s kind of like my inspiration. He’s never going to be bad,” the budding musician said when asked what he thought of the virtuoso’s performance.
Tolbert attended the concert with Patricia Jones Blessman, a friend of his mother who has been a member of the parish since 1988. “You’d have to be a rock not to be touched by the words and music,” she said. “It was just an incredible experience.”
Kyle MacMillan is a freelance writer.