Dear Mrs. Parks
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Dear Mrs Parks features a massive ensemble comprised of full orchestra plus two choirs and four vocal soloists. Influenced by blues, jazz, African music and Gospel music, it pays homage to Rosa Parks in the form of imaginary letters to the civil rights he
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It is this great but very common woman and her act that the African-American composer Hannibal Lokumbe celebrates in his 2005 oratorio "Dear Mrs. Parks", a ten-movement work that combines a large symphonic orchestra with elements of blues, jazz, and original African music that Mr. Lokumbe was extremely familiar with. Lasting an hour in length, but with no lethargy even remotely present, "Dear Mrs. Parks" is performed on this Naxos recording, made before a live audience in March 2009, by vocal soloists Janice Chandler-Etene, Jevetta Steele, Kevin Deas, and Taylor Gardner, the Rackham Symphony Choir, and the Brazeal Dennard Chorale, with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra led by their resident guest conductor Thomas Wilkins, who also holds that same position with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra here in Los Angeles. Wilkins is one of the few African-American conductors to have attained a high position in an American orchestra (another one being James DePreist), and so this particular recording should certainly make African Americans throughout the United States feel an extreme sense of pride. But it is the very performance itself that is to be marveled, and it is that sense of marvel that crosses all racial and ethnic barriers.
Far from being a mere civics and history lesson set to music, "Dear Mrs. Parks" is a great work of our nation's great musical heritage, and this recording from the Motor City is to be cherished.
"Mrs. Parks" is Rosa Parks, of course. The four vocal soloists--Kevin Deas, bass; Janice Chandler-Eteme, soprano; Jevetta Steele, mezzo-soprano; and Taylor Gardner, child soprano--read out four "letters" written to the civil rights legend. These letters address the horror of slavery and racism ("a history so cruel as to be never forgotten or forgiven"), sanctification of "our good sister Rosa," the power of the black woman in history both foreign and domestic, and fnally the opening prayer declaimed once more by the child. In the first three cases, the choir and chorale respond and underline the messages. After the child's rendition, a final repetition of the prayer ends the piece.
Stark packaging completes the effect. On the back of the CD booklet we see a photo portrait of an "Enslaved Woman." She's looking to the left. Rosa Parks, on the slipcase cover, sits on a bus; she's looking to the right, back at her.--OffBeat Magazine, April 2010 issue
50 years ago "Missa Luba" combined the Latin Mass with traditional Congolese spirituals. The transformation from solemnity to celebratory was a revelation.
Hannible Lokumbe's "Dear Mrs. Parks" is a very American parallel to it; American in both its musics and its historical struggle of conscience. Like "Missa Luba" it merges classical formality with African dynamics, but extends them into jazz, gospel, and blues. The Civil Rights Movement was fueled by spirituals and biblical poetry, unifying every beaten loner into a redemptive revolution. Lokumbe's tribute oratorio mirrors this in psalmic letters and choral chants which reflect the one and everyone. 'The personal is political' and, as ever, very powerful.
"A Prayer" is a march of faith one step at a time. Its deliberate tonal steps, repeated with pause and concentration, suggest struggle but unwavering discipline. This almost martial formality in chordal and choral structure is unity in action, literally. "For We Have Walked..." takes this marching tension and releases it with a swinging polyrhythmic interlude that builds into stacked chorals so powerful that the audience leaps to cheer at its end! "In Sacrifice" reinforces chant as a rhythm, a kindred confession and resolution, that backbones the work, before the rhythm multiples into intensely propulsive drums and ecstatic horns. Often there is a blur between Catholic chorals and the sway of Southern gospel. For me the truest strengths of the work came when the harmonies and melodies locked together into fevered forward motion, such as the exhilerating "Like Luminous Rains..." The oratorio is bracketed by a poem where each line is a concentrated step, building to a final lifing release. This is a liberating work, in every sense. Rosa would be honored.
Beyond modern classical admirers, this might also thrill fans of Paul Robeson, the Gershwins, Leonard Bernstein, Gil Evans, James Brown, Fela, John Coltrane, P-Funk, Stevie Wonder, Talking Heads, The Slits, Joe Strummer, Public Enemy, and Peter Gabriel.
I first heard Jevetta Steele's rich voice on the "Corrina, Corrina" movie soundtrack. After hearing Janice Chandler Eteme's solo
performance on Richard Smallwood's gospel cd "Journey:Live in New York," I was captivated by her operatic voice and artistry. I immediately looked for other works which featured Ms. Chandler-Eteme.