View the original article on the Chicago Tribune.
Adrian Dunn remembers singing inside the Harris Theater for the first time as a fresh-faced member of the Grant Park Festival Chorus. The brand-new space was huge and cavernous, and the Grant Park choir — then and now — predominantly white.
So it feels full circle, even redemptive, for Dunn to return now, nearly 20 years later, headlining the same venue in a streamed Chicago Philharmonic concert featuring his own work and his own all-Black ensemble: the Adrian Dunn Singers, a Chicago-based chorus that’s performed with local orchestras and toured nationally since 2018. Their electric presence transformed the Harris, as well. Just ask new Chicago Philharmonic executive director Terell M. Johnson.
“I’ve gone through music education my whole life, and in that time, I was usually one of very few people who look like me. This was one of the first instances where I stepped in a space with highly skilled players and saw myself and others in a way that felt inclusive,” Johnson reflected.
The program’s centerpiece is the fittingly titled “Redemption,” Dunn and Chicago Philharmonic composer-in-residence Marcus Norris’s reimaginings of spirituals and gospel songs in memory of Black Americans slain by police or para-police. Dunn’s arrangements recognizably retain the original melodies, but the ways they transform are utterly hair-raising: Hear the churning multiple meters in his arrangement of “Wade in the Water,” dedicated to Philando Castile, or the increasingly frenetic canon in “Bells” (“Rockin’ Jerusalem”) for Tamir Rice, and you’ll understand why.
Is “Redemption” an elegy? Yes, indisputably — but it’s a joyful one nonetheless. From Dunn’s perspective, it couldn’t be any other way.
“‘Redemption’ tells the truth: The beauty in Black culture is that there’s celebration, even in times of great trial,” Dunn says. “We focus so much on the trauma of what happened to these people in their last moments, so instead we’re celebrating the lives that they lived.”
For the Harris performance, streaming free until Aug. 27, a three-piece band joins a string orchestra culled from the ranks of the Philharmonic; for the live album recorded at Chicago Temple last February, Dunn’s Rize Orchestra — an ensemble uniting Black professional and student musicians and focusing on the music of living Black composers — plays the instrumentals.
“If you’re a Black player in undergrad or graduate studies, you automatically have a spot in this orchestra and get mentored by older Black musicians,” Dunn says. “With both Rize and the Adrian Dunn Singers, the ‘why’ is at the forefront. I think audiences want to see organizations that are connected to something bigger than the hall they’re performing in.”
Dunn knows that “why” is crucial, because it’s something classical music scarcely offered him. A self-described “weird Black gay kid from Cleveland who loved Tchaikovsky more than anything,” Dunn fell hard for classical music after singing the Vivaldi “Gloria” with his middle school choir. But never once over the course of his music education — from grade school all the way through his two performance degrees, plus additional opera study at the Sibelius Academy in Finland — did he have a Black teacher. And gigging as a classically trained tenor was demoralizing in its own right.
“I saw the writing on the wall when I was 19 years old. Like, ‘I cannot walk in spaces like this every day and see nothing but seas of white people.’ I personally didn’t have the social capacity,” he says.
As Dunn saw it, he had to do one of two things: “change the game, or play a different game” altogether. He’s done both ever since. Through his streaming service Black Music Experience, Dunn has cataloged performances by Black musicians (including a few by local chamber music initiative D-Composed), roundtables, and his many projects with the Singers — like last December’s “Black Messiah,” a genre-melding counter to Handel’s original. Dunn now works at his alma mater, Roosevelt University’s Chicago College of the Performing Arts, as its racial equity adviser; while still a student there, he started the Legacy Black Music Project, which promoted music by Black composers and successfully agitated for the hiring of more faculty members of color. That in turn became an incubator for “Hopera,” his first opera. (Dunn is currently working on his second, “Black Bohème,” and a choral-orchestral work “Emancipation,” which Dunn says is inspired by “Black sacred texts” by the likes of Audre Lorde, James Baldwin and Tupac.)
“Hopera” was a launching pad for “Redemption” in two respects. First of all, it introduced Dunn to Norris, a kindred spirit who also founded his own Black music-focused orchestra (the South Side Symphony in Los Angeles); the two then collaborated on orchestral expansions of Dunn’s prior a cappella arrangements to create “Redemption.” Second, it began Dunn’s career-long fusion of classical idioms with Black musical traditions — in this case hip hop — ”on our own terms.” You can draw a direct line from “Hopera” to moments like the orchestral prelude to “Redemption’s” “Wade,” when the strings cut off completely then enter with driving pizzicatos — a thrilling beat drop that elicited appreciative hoots from the Adrian Dunn Singers in the Harris performance.
“No matter what the genre or style we’re singing at that moment, (I tell the singers) if you feel like raising your hand, raise your hand. If you feel like moving, move,” Dunn says. “I say all the time that classical music does a good job of separating Blackness from Black music. When we present Black work, why does everything have to feel like we’re doing Beethoven?”
Another thing classical music (or, more accurately, classical music institutions) does a good job of separating from the music? Any hint of provocation. The 36-year-old Dunn says his retooling of the spirituals and gospel songs in “Redemption” is rooted in a millennial perspective — one which rejects apoliticization and is more willing to call anti-Black violence what it is inside the concert hall. “Redemption” sometimes even stretches the songs themselves to emphasize that vantage point. For example, Dunn altered the refrain of the spiritual “I Open My Mouth to the Lord,” dedicated here to both Eric Garner and George Floyd, from “… and I won’t turn back” to the more decisive “I’ll never turn back.” He also cut out the lyrics “I will go / I shall go / To see what the end’s going to be” — because, as far as Dunn is concerned, Garner and Floyd never got to see that end.
“In this generation, this is the part that’s got to be highlighted,” Dunn says. “The way I see that same story might be very different than the way previous generations have seen it, and that’s OK. There’s room for both.”
“I hope that ‘Redemption’ ends up being a part of a new canon, if you will, of Black work that represents another generational perspective, one that says that we’re gonna do what’s right. And even if we don’t get it right, we’re gonna try. This is the hill to die on as far as I’m concerned.”
“Redemption” streams until Aug. 27. Marcus Norris’s “Glory,” featuring violinist Njioma Grevious, is also featured on the program. Watch online at virtualstage.harristheaterchicago.org.