Sinfonietta closes season with engaging and adventurous program

Sat May 11, 2024 at 12:32 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Mei-Ann Chen conducted the Chicago Sinfonietta Friday night at Wentz Concert Hall in Naperville. Photo: Simon Pauly

The Chicago Sinfonietta presented its final program of the season Friday night in Naperville (to be repeated Saturday in Chicago). As president & CEO Blake-Anthony Johnson mentioned in his user-friendly introduction at Wentz Concert Hall, it has been a noteworthy season for the diversity-minded ensemble. The Sinfonietta embarked on its first tour in decades, and also moved to a new downtown venue, bringing a resident orchestra series back to the Auditorium.

Led by music director Mei-Ann Chen, Friday’s concert drew a large turnout, including many families with children (as well as several vocal infants and restive near-infants brought by overindulgent parents).

The program, titled “Reverb,” showed the Sinfonietta at its best with an adventurous, well-balanced lineup of music, including two engaging works by living composers and a long-neglected symphony. Unfortunately, there was scant information about any of the music in the pamphlet that served as a program; while the introductions by the voluble Chen were helpful, they were no substitute for real program notes. (Despite a QR code on the handout, there was no “full program” to link to on the Sinfonietta website.)

Unsuk Chin’s Subito con forza led off the evening. Written by the South Korean composer for the Beethoven 250 year of 2020, the aptly named work (“Suddenly with power”) immediately shows its Ludwigian inspiration with an eruptive, metallic opening chord. A mysterious passage for basses follows, which accelerates into a tempestuous, timpani-led theme for full orchestra. Chin, characteristically, packs a lot of incident into her bracing five-minute work, including steep dynamic swells and a jazzy piano passage. Conductor Chen led a focused and brassy performance that provided effective advocacy for Chin’s angular, well-crafted work.

Amid the current interest in reviving works by non-pale and non-male composers, one figure whose neglected music is clearly deserving of exhumation is Louise Farrenc. The French composer (1804-75) was a noted pianist and teacher of her day, the only female professor (of piano) at the Paris Conservatoire in the 19th century.

Louise Farrenc’s Symphony No 3 was performed by the Chicago Sinfonietta Friday night.

Farrenc’s Symphony No. 3 (1847) hovers somewhere between early Beethoven and late Mendelssohn in style. If an individual voice isn’t always manifest, Farrenc’s music is unfailingly tuneful, engaging and crafted with skill and assurance.

The collegial Chen credited the Lakeview Orchestra for giving the belated Chicago premiere of Farrenc’s Third Symphony in 2019; she jokingly noted that the Sinfonietta’s performance Friday night, however, marked the work’s Naperville debut.

The Sinfonietta’s music conductor proved a fine advocate for Farrenc’s score, leading a fluent and vital performance that kept the music in scale. The gracious, clarinet-led theme of the Adagio was given warm ardor by Chen as the motif moves to the strings, and the Mendelssohnian echoes were manifest in the Scherzo. The stormy finale is the least inspired of the four movements, somewhat anonymous in its minor-key drama, but provided a suitably spirited conclusion in the Sinfonietta’s sturdy performance.

Music of Carlos Simon opened the second half with the African-American composer’s Profiles. (Despite the program stating this would be a Chicago premiere, Simon’s ’s 2022 triptych was performed last summer by the Grant Park Orchestra, a late addition to a July concert.)

On this occasion, Chen included just the second and third of the three portraits. In “Empress of the Blues,” the conductor drew out the populist essence of the main theme, inspired by the great Bessie Smith, bolstered by idiomatically bluesy solos by cellist Edward Moore, trombonist Robyn Smith and trumpet Matthew Lee. The concluding “City of Lights”  provided an energized finale, the locomotive element reflecting the Great Migration north, said Chen.

The concluding performance of Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini reunited the conductor with pianist George Li for their first concert together in a decade.  

George Li

Winner of the Silver Medal at the 2015 Tchaikovsky Competition, Li proved a virtuosic advocate for Rachmaninoff‘s beloved score. The young pianist’s playing was technically faultless, even dealing with a clangorous Steinway, and he powered through the bravura variations with striking clarity and muscle. Li also brought notable breadth and freshness to the lyrical pages, which made his loud and unpoetic playing of the famous 18th variation a surprising disappointment; that lack was somewhat balanced by Chen’s impassioned orchestral rendering of the theme’s famous limpid inversion.

No complaints about the soloist’s encore of Liszt’s Transcendental Étude No. 10 in F minor, delivered in a full-throttle, barnstorming rendition Friday night.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Auditorium.

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