Sinfonietta has a mixed night with yet another look back

Fri Apr 20, 2012 at 1:11 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Harvey Felder conducted the Chicago Sinfonietta Thursday night in a wide-ranging program.

Based on Thursday night’s concert at Symphony Center, it seems like little has changed at the Chicago Sinfonietta in Mei-Ann Chen’s first season as music director.

Granted, the fiery Chen wasn’t on the podium for Thursday’s program. That’s likely one reason why it felt like the same Sinfonietta event of too many heard in recent seasons: yet another retrospective look back, another overstuffed program, largely the same personnel, and, frankly, the same brand of mediocrity.

With the extended audition process for a new music director and founder Paul Freeman’s long goodbye, the Sinfonietta’s concerts in recent seasons have too often morphed into the musical equivalent of a testimonial dinner—tepid speeches, high-minded rhetoric and undistinguished performances.

Without taking anything away from Freeman or the diversity-based chamber orchestra’s admirable mission, if the Sinfonietta is ever going to move out of the rut it’s been mired in for the last several years, it’s past time that the ensemble cease its self-referential backward gaze and move forward with some urgency into the future. That means upgrading personnel, instilling a new sense of mission and allowing the current music director to carve out her own vision and repertoire. With Chen conducting four out of five Sinfonietta programs next season, hopefully that will finally be allowed to happen.

Back for a second podium stand Thursday with the Sinfonietta, Harvey Felder was tasked with assembling a program of music performed in the ensemble’s first season, as a ramp-up to next year’s 25th Sinfonietta anniversary. With five works on the lineup—and four of them requiring some fair amount of rehearsal—it was inevitable that polish and quality would be a sometime thing.

Music director of the Tacoma Symphony, Felder is an engaging presence with his user-friendly introductions and unfussy style. There aren’t many rarely heard pieces by Mozart, but the evening led off with one, the overture from his ballet pantomime, Les petit riens, here given a vital and spirited performance.

With its substantial solo demands for principal players, Ginastera’s Variaciones concertantes requires a greater degree of musicianship—or rehearsal time—than was apparent last night. While Felder led a careful and well balanced reading, the performance was ultimately more conscientious than inspired. Orchestra solos ranged from competent to grim, and this cautious, colorless outing lacked the kind of fizzing intensity that Chen might have provided.

In Knoxville: Summer of 1915, Sarah Hibbard displayed a youthful, attractive voice, one seemingly well suited to Barber’s reflective setting of James Agee’s nostalgic text. Yet even with her crisp diction, Hibbard’s light soprano was far too underpowered for this music with her words largely indecipherable even at the front of the balcony.

The second half of the evening fared somewhat better. George Walker’s Antiphonys is an early work (1968) from his even more thorny, astringent youthful style. I’m not sure the irascible Walker would have appreciated Felder’s reductionist personal fantasy of what the music represents, but the conductor led a solid enough reading.

The evening concluded with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8. This was not the most polished performance one is ever likely to hear, with misreads, rough edges and garrulous moments, but Felder for the most part led a worthy performance, even if the work’s humor could have smiled more.

Posted in Performances

2 Responses to “Sinfonietta has a mixed night with yet another look back”

  1. Posted Apr 20, 2012 at 1:42 pm by Marie Geeson

    It’s clear that Mr. Johnson is not a fan of this group, it’s mission or its personnel. Please stop the bashing of Chicago Sinfonietta..your racial preferences are showing and the few kind words about Harvey Felder can’t cover this dislike of what this group is about. Some of your previous comments also showed that you have no respect for Dr. Paul Freeman..just stop going..You’d obviously have a better time somewhere else..Marie Geeson

  2. Posted May 14, 2012 at 8:57 pm by George Walker

    From the “irascible”.

    The extrapolations of the tin-eared Lawrence Johnson hardly deserve a comment. Nevertheless, it can be said that my Antifonys bares no resemblance to earlier works of mine that he has described as “thorny”. I totally agree with the comments of Marie Geeson. Its regrettable that this level of incompetence should manifest itself at the most felicitous moments.

    George Walker

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