On a Sunday morning early this spring, the Rev. Michael Pfleger had an unannounced visitor at St. Sabina, the parish he has led for more than 40 years on Chicago’s South Side. Located in city’s Auburn Gresham neighborhood, the century-old church isn’t exactly a mecca for casual drop-ins, let alone drop-ins by internationally renowned musicians. But Yo-Yo Ma, famed cellist and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Judson and Joyce Green Creative Consultant, had been en route to the airport and requested a detour. He’d been following Pfleger’s work in the St. Sabina and Chicago communities, he told the activist priest, and wanted to introduce himself.
Ma then fetched his cello and played what Pfleger describes as “this beautiful song.” As parishioners trickled in for the 10 a.m. service, they were naturally drawn to Ma and his music. When Ma finished, Pfleger recalls, he expressed interest in doing a benefit concert at St. Sabina. Pfleger was touched and instantly agreed, though he was wary. “I’ve been around a while,” he said. “If I had a dime for every person who told me they wanted to support me, I would make Oprah look like she [lived] on Lower Wacker.”
But Pfleger’s wariness soon dissipated when he was contacted by the CSO and its Negaunee Music Institute about nailing down a mutually feasible date. He chose June 11 for the program, titled Concert for Peace. It quickly sold out. Besides Ma, it features musicians from the CSO, the Civic Orchestra of Chicago and St. Sabina’s church ensemble, along with the Chicago Children’s Choir. Pfleger will offer remarks. Produced by the CSO’s Negaunee Music Institute, the concert is part of a new partnership with St. Sabina Church devoted to reducing violence in Chicago’s streets. Proceeds will support St. Sabina’s anti-violence and Strong Futures employment programs.
The program, which reflects Chicago’s musical history, will feature chamber-music arrangements of works by Scott Joplin (Maple Leaf Rag), Antonin Dvořák (the fourth movement of his String Quartet No. 12), Aaron Copland (Fanfare for the Common Man) and Duke Ellington (Come Sunday), as well as traditional and popular songs from the United States and Africa.
Like CSO maestro Riccardo Muti, who also has visited St. Sabina and admires Pfleger’s work in the community, Ma believes that music and the arts in general can help address and even solve societal ills. Chief among those ills in Chicago are gangs and guns, with which Pfleger is intimately acquainted. He has counseled many parents and friends of shooting victims, and eulogized those same victims at countless funerals. In late May of 1998, gun violence claimed his foster son of barely a year, Jarvis Franklin. “I was totally paralyzed by it,” Pfleger told the New Yorker magazine in 2016. “The gang issue became very personal after Jarvis was killed.”
The Concert for Peace is personal as well. “I’ve always believed that one of the things we’ve got to do with this violence is bring a consciousness to everybody,” Pfleger said. “It’s not just the people on the South Side or the West Side, but all of the Chicagoland area has to be as concerned about it as we are.”
A well-known star like Ma, he adds, can facilitate that wider consciousness by drawing people from all over, including far-flung suburbs, who normally wouldn’t venture to 78th and Racine. The $20 ticket price is a nice incentive, too. The CSO and St. Sabina will provide 300 free tickets for community members from programs supported by the parish.
Ma’s magnetism in this regard is “monumental,” Pfleger said. And his presence at the event sends an extremely positive signal: “If Yo-Yo Ma, who a lot of people have great admiration for, uses his position to say, ‘I’m here, and I’m committed to this,’ it challenges others to say, ‘What am I doing?’ ”
And, of course, there’s the music. Music “touches the heart and the soul,” Pfleger said. “People listen to music to calm down. People listen to music to lift their spirits. People listen to music to feel better.
“Music is a powerful tool that can unite.”
The concert, which begins at 4 p.m. and will run approximately 75 minutes without an intermission, is at St. Sabina Church, 1210 W. 78th Pl. in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood.
TOP: The Rev. Michael Pfleger addresses a rally at the State Capitol building in Springfield. | Photo: St. Sabina Church