Dear Mrs. Parks

Title:  Dear Mrs. Parks

Composer:  Hannibal Lokumbe

Artists:  Detroit Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Thomas Wilkins

Label:  Naxos
Catalog No.: 8.559668

Format: CD

Release date:  December 15, 2009

Hannibal Lokumbe is a classical composer and jazz trumpeter also known by his first name only. In his classical compositions, Hannibal isn’t looking to enlarge the sound of jazz among the Western orchestra in order to create a concert entertainment but to compose music that celebrates the African American experience on its own terms, and in a wholly serious manner. His previous effort, African Portraits (Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Daniel Barenboim, 1995) was released by Nonesuch with much fanfare but was ultimately criticized for eclecticism and over ambitiousness.

Dear Mrs. Parks was a 2005 commission from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and, if anything, the eclecticism is held in check.  Although the instrumental forces are still very large– with four soloists, two choruses and an expanded orchestra with an added battery of percussion– this work has a very singular purpose in mind.  The oratorio in ten movements  is based on Hannibal’s own text in the form of letters addressed to Mrs. Rosa Parks from four different characters, portrayed by soloists Janice Chandler-Eteme, Jevetta Steele, Kevin Deas and child soprano Taylor Gardner. The chorus fulfills numerous functions– interacting with the soloists, hovering as angels in the background or assuming the foreground role of the vox populi. The music is often very still and focuses on supporting the texts, though it comes alive with rich and riotous percussion in movements such as “For We Have Walked the Streets of Babylon” and “Like Luminous Rain.”

Overall, the character of the music is not particularly jazzy but has a strong African flavor, based in modes, utilizing drones and employing an underlying rhythmic funkiness. This Naxos recording is edited together from the premiere performances at Orchestra Hall in Detroit in March 2009, and the audience is certainly present and quite involved; vigorous applause is heard at the end of livelier movements. In Dear Mrs. Parks, Hannibal has achieved the serious statement that he has sought to make in a standard concert work -music that enjoys a kind of contextual integrity yet still contains enough splash to captivate a predominantly African American audience and to bring them into the concert hall. Certainly this is readily apparent from the recording, where the approval from the crowd is most enthusiastic.

Read more about the work at the Naxos blog.

Reviewed by David “Uncle Dave” Lewis