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The Suite Life of Mandela: South African Hero’s Journey Given a Symphonic Celebration

July 23, 2008

By Howard Reich, Chicago Tribune

Jul. 23–The life of Nelson Mandela–marked by tragic injustice and transcendent heroism–may be too vast a subject to be encompassed by a single musical composition.

But that did not stop Chicago composer-trumpeter Orbert Davis from attempting the Herculean task. Davis’ symphonic suite “Hope in Action,” which received its world premiere Monday evening in Millennium Park, dared to trace the arc of Mandela’s extraordinary journey, from birth to imprisonment to liberation. And though the hourlong work could explore only a few pivotal moments in Mandela’s life, it nonetheless proved surprisingly effective in portraying the man’s emotional inner life–at least as Davis understands it.

Not that “Hope in Action,” penned to celebrate Mandela’s recent 90th birthday, entirely amounted to an act of imagination. By incorporating passages from Mandela’s autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom,” Davis gave his work a documentary underpinning. To hear narrator T’Keyah Crystal Keymah delivering Mandela’s words on the brutality of racism or the terrors of solitary confinement, while Davis’ Chicago Jazz Philharmonic thundered or lamented behind her, was to experience Mandela’s story in vividly poetic terms.

The four-movement suite opened auspiciously (before an audience of 6,500), its majestic first passages quickly giving way to surging rhythms and soaring crescendos. Davis called the opener “Rolihlahla,” for Mandela’s birth name, its juxtaposition of hard-driving main theme and ominous counter-theme an apt metaphor for a bold young black man coming of age in a forbidding culture.

Before long, South African saxophonist Zim Ngqawana was unleashing piercing cries on alto saxophone against a ferocious percussion accompaniment. Jazz improvisational technique, classical symphonic writing and South African folkloric music converged here.

Classical purists may have been offended by the radical choice Davis made at the end of the first movement, and several others. Rather than simply proceed with the next portion of his composition, Davis halted the progress of the piece, bringing on Chicago singer Dee Alexander to perform music of the South African diva Miriam Makeba as a kind of musical interlude. But if composers from Beethoven to Charles Ives could interrupt their symphonies by interjecting the startling sounds of marching bands, why can’t Davis?

In this case, the gesture proved ingenious, for it brought the sound of the South African street to an otherwise formal, somewhat rarefied piece of music.

Other high points were yet to come. In “Prisoner 466-64,” Davis achieved some of the most searing writing of his career. The orchestra’s slowly menacing rhythms and growling, primordial low notes captured the terror of Mandela’s confinement with disturbing acuity.

The only structural problem with the piece came toward the end. Though there was no resisting the Soul Children of Chicago singing a South African hymn, the work’s final pages sounded a bit glib after the anguish that preceded it.

Regardless, this is not the last we will hear of “Hope in Action,” a landmark achievement for Davis and the philharmonic.

hreich@tribune.com

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