A standing ovation for Chicago Sinfonietta’s March 5 “Homecoming” concert, led by Music Director Mei-Ann Chen, in Sisters Chapel at Spelman College. Photo by Caen Thomason-Redus.

In Brief | Chicago Sinfonietta headed to Atlanta in March to connect with students at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), with a brief residency at Spelman College that included masterclasses, discussions, a workshop for emerging composers, a concert, and more. The visit had special meaning for the students, for Chicago Sinfonietta, and for the communities it engaged.

When Chicago Sinfonietta headed to Atlanta this March, it wasn’t a business-as-usual orchestral run-out. The orchestra visited Spelman College, a liberal arts college for Black women, for a brief but packed residency that also included participants from Morehouse College—a historically Black college for men—and the Atlanta Music Project and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s Talent Development Program. Chicago Sinfonietta was founded to model and promote diversity, inclusion, and racial and cultural equity in classical music, and activities during the visit went beyond concertizing, with close-up sessions with Sinfonietta musicians, panel discussions, a workshop for student composers, receptions, and—yes—a concert.

Caen Thomason-Redus, Vice President for Inclusion and Learning at the League of American Orchestras, reports from the tour.

I’m sitting in a small auditorium at Spelman College as Chicago Sinfonietta Principal Percussionist Jeff Handley demonstrates and speaks about a variety of African percussion instruments for students in a world music class. It’s a Monday morning, but the students are attentive, engaged, and even laughing at his jokes—not an easy accomplishment, as every teacher knows. And the music itself is awesome. Sessions like this are something he’s done in educational settings for 25 years—in addition to playing percussion, Handley is Sinfonietta’s Education/Outreach Program Director. That kind of dedication is admirable,  but what makes it a particularly remarkable moment is that he is here as part of the Chicago Sinfonietta’s “Homecoming Tour” to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in Atlanta, Georgia. Touring is an important activity for any orchestra, but the fact that Sinfonietta chose to come here, to be in residence on this campus, is notable. Partnerships between professional orchestras and HBCUs are relatively rare, and traveling this distance for a residency of this nature is particularly rare. This is one of at least six educational events—master classes, panel discussions, and performances—involving students from Spelman College, Morehouse College, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s Talent Development Program, and the Atlanta Music Project. The addition of a send-off event in Chicago, a welcome reception in Atlanta, an open rehearsal and a free, sold-out concert makes for a brief, but densely packed tour.

It’s a statement that an upper-midwestern orchestra and this community of Historically Black Colleges can welcome each other, learn from each other, and feel at home together.

There are many reasons Sinfonietta chose to come to Atlanta for this tour. In addition to the artistic and administrative chops an orchestra develops when touring and the opportunities to connect in person with HBCUs, there were personal connections to Atlanta. Chicago Sinfonietta President and CEO Blake-Anthony Johnson is from Atlanta. Music Director Mei-Ann Chen was once the assistant conductor at the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. For them it quite literally is a homecoming. While conducting the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Sinfonietta’s founding music director, Paul Freeman, met Martin Luther King Jr., who inspired him to found Sinfonietta. But it’s also a statement that an upper-midwestern orchestra and this community of Historically Black Colleges can welcome each other, learn from each other, and feel at home together. That spirit is definitely emerging here in this class, and I am eager to see if it continues throughout the residency.

Chicago Sinfonietta produced a video to promote its March 2024 trip to Atlanta.

I’m back in the small auditorium in what Spelman College calls one of their “Living & Learning Communities.” After beginning with a strong performance of Valerie Coleman’s Umoja, a woodwind quintet from the Chicago Sinfonietta is now reading through compositions by other Black women. In this case, all the composers are students at Spelman College. The quintet approaches each score with enthusiasm, curiosity, and a creative spirit. The compositions are brief, but compelling, and each quite different from the others. The composers speak about their inspiration for their piece, ask questions of and give comments to the musicians, and receive questions, comments, and suggestions from the musicians. Instrumental idiosyncrasies, alternate notations, phrasing, and dynamics are all discussed freely. Composition students are sometimes fortunate enough to have their draft works read by student performers, but readings by professional musicians are not easy to secure. The atmosphere is collaborative, relaxed, constructive, and enjoyable. This is the creative process unfolding in real time. As a performer (and just barely a composer), I love moments like these. Creativity, vulnerability, spontaneity…all in the pursuit of expressing something unique and meaningful.

Even if these communities are new to each other, their shared purpose seems to be bringing them together.

This is the last of several educational and social events I’ve attended during this short trip. In all cases, whether it was the celebratory receptions in Chicago and Atlanta or the classes here on the Spelman campus, there has been a palpable sense of connection. Even if these communities are new to each other, their shared purpose seems to be bringing them together.

  • A string ensemble (Carmen Kassinger and Sylvia de la Cerna, violins; Scott Dowd, viola; Don Mead, cello; Alan Steiner, bass) performs the Andante Moderato movement from Florence Price’s String Quartet in G major in a Survey of African American Music class at Spelman College. All photos this section courtesy of Chicago Sinfonietta.
  • At a String Instrumental Master Class on March 4 at Spelman College’s Sisters Chapel, Chicago Sinfonietta cellist Andrew Snow works with Sage Lima-Jeffries (cello, Atlanta Music Project) and a pianist.
  • A wind quintet comprising Janice MacDonald, flute; Ricardo Castañeda, oboe; Leslie Grimm, clarinet; Ben Roidl-Ward, bassoon; and Lee Shirer, French horn, performed a reading of a Spelman student’s score in a Composition class.

Sisters Chapel has had an important place in the history of Spelman College, the Civil Rights movement, and the personal lives of thousands of students and community members. It’s been a place of worship, of remembrance, of healing, and of celebration, and tonight it is the site of Chicago Sinfonietta’s “Homecoming” concert. This chapel-turned-concert-hall has already been busy today with an open rehearsal and a pre-concert panel discussion. A variety of community members from campus and beyond attended the preliminary events, and now the chapel is full as the orchestra is performing the culmination of this project. There are families with very young children, attendees with walkers and wheelchairs, college students, large groups, couples, and individuals. Most of the audience is Black, which is not surprising on the campus of a Historically Black College or University, but it is unusual for an orchestra concert.

The program of the concert is also a bit uncommon (see the complete program below). With eleven relatively short pieces and no intermission, it’s a quick-moving tour of composers important to history and to the Sinfonietta. With six of the works written by women, the orchestra demonstrates its habit of programming a majority of women composers. With six of the works written by Black composers, the program also showcases multiple generations of Black excellence in classical music.

Chicago Sinfonietta “Homecoming” Program at Spelman College, Atlanta
March 5, 2024

Scott JOPLIN (orch. TJ Anderson) Overture from Treemonisha
Florence PRICE “Andante Moderato” from String Quartet in G major
Margaret BONDS “Lament” from Montgomery Variations
Jennifer HIGDON “Raucous Rumpus” from Dance Card
Trevor WESTON Aurorean Air
Jennifer HIGDON “Machina Rockus” from Dance Card
Michael R. DUDLEY Jr. A Prayer for Our Times for String Orchestra
Benjamin BRITTEN Playful Pizzicato from Simple Symphony
Grace WILLIAMS Sailing Song from Sea Sketches
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY “Finale (Tema Russo)” from Serenade for Strings

The orchestra itself sounds great. Each piece is played with conviction, and the variety of eras and styles gives each piece a unique role in the concert. The musicians have shown a great level of care throughout the residency. The playing has been impressive, the comments have been insightful, and the musicians’ success in adapting to the inevitable surprises of residency work has generally kept things moving efficiently and effectively.

At a pre-concert talk on March 5, speakers (from left) Chicago Sinfonietta Music Director Mei-Ann Chen; Sinfonietta President and CEO Anthony Blake; Dr. Paula Grissom-Broughton, Music Faculty, Spelman College; and Monica Benson, Director of Education and Community Engagement, discussed the orchestra’s tour, the importance of diversity in the symphonic world, and more. Photo courtesy Chicago Sinfonietta.

The months of preparation by administrative and artistic staff, coupled with the musicians’ ability to bring those plans to life on stage and in the classroom, now results in this special moment where music creates community. There is an immense sense of pride conveyed in the comments and reactions of audience members. They respond throughout the concert as if this orchestra from Chicago is their orchestra. But no one seems prouder to be here than the orchestra’s music director, Mei-Ann Chen. She describes the many connections the Sinfonietta has to Atlanta, the importance of the orchestra being here at Spelman, the importance of the audience being here, and the importance of the racial and gender diversity of the composers on the program. This Taiwanese-American conductor speaks to the significance of this moment better than many American-born conductors. Her unabashed enthusiasm, pride, and appreciation are infectious. The audience can’t help but like her. Forty-five or so minutes into this intermission-less concert, she tells the audience not to worry if they fall asleep…she and the orchestra will be happy to wake them up.

From start to finish, this experience has felt like equal parts celebration, community-building, music-making, and experimentation. The project seemed to prove the worth of a potentially risky venture like this, and I believe it succeeded in achieving an actual sense of “homecoming.” I’ve heard dozens of people talk about ideas they have for a return trip. I hope we get to see that, and I hope we see more like it across our country.

Following the March 5 “Homecoming” concert, Chicago Sinfonietta musicians and Music Director Mei-Ann Chen greeted audience members. Photo by Caen Thomason-Redus.