Composer Renée Baker had always been drawn to the work of novelist, playwright and activist James Baldwin.
“That information becomes part of your fabric,” Baker said. “And as a creative, you take what you hear, what you access, what you feel, and you distill it.”
What Baker distilled was a trilogy of projects that focus on different phases of James Baldwin's existence. Her newest opera, The Baldwin Chronicles: Midnight Ramble, is second in line and premieres Saturday at Buntrock Hall, hosted by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s African American Network. The opera is a multimedia musical work based on texts by Baldwin, including his poem “Conundrum” from Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems.
Saturday will mark the network’s third annual Black History Month celebration, and bringing The Baldwin Chronicles to the CSO stage is a part of its larger effort to engage Chicago’s African-American community.
Sheila Jones, the African American Network’s director of community stewardship, co-founded the organization with CSO music director Riccardo Muti. She said the opera signifies the type of opportunities the network wants to provide — one of its goals is to educate the Chicago community about black people’s contribution to classical music.
“People of African descent have been in this classical music genre for hundreds and hundreds of years,” Jones said. “We have that history, that legacy, and today there exists some of the most prodigious, prolific, talented, gifted, loving artists in our midst. And Renée Baker is one of those.”
Baker said she hopes the audience sees the opera as more than just a concert, but as an experience. She said Baldwin’s work and words are still relevant today and she hopes people see themselves and their own experiences in Baldwin’s.
“Baldwin was pretty brutal and pretty realistic about race relations and he remained hopeful, though, that there could one day be a society that dealt primarily in equity and in justice,” Baker said. “We're not there yet, but I want people to come away with hope that it doesn't have to be so ugly all the time.”
Saturday’s show is The Baldwin Chronicles' only scheduled performance at CSO. Ticket information is available at cso.org.
Arionne Nettles is a digital producer at WBEZ covering arts and culture. Follow her on Twitter at @arionnenettles.