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4SPIEL Review- The Chicago Philharmonic Chamber Players and Bethany Thomas in concert with "Sounds of Change"

By Debra Davy

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On Sunday, February 19, 2017, the City Winery, 1200 W. Randolph, Chicago, showcased the chamber music ensemble 4SPIEL aka The Chicago Philharmonic Chamber Players, with special guest vocalist Bethany Thomas. The concert was entitled “Sounds of Change”, a paean to the music of the 60’s and 70’s, and featured virtuoso musicians Lisa Fako and Carmen Kassinger, violins; Monica Reilly, viola; and Margaret Daly, cello, along with Thomas, a Jeff-Award winning actress and singer “known for her expressive, genre-defying singing style and audacious re-interpretation of classic tunes”.

The Chicago Philharmonic Chamber Players performing "Sounds of Change"

The music ranged in scope from R and B, through soul, jazz, and rock and roll to classical and musical theater. The commissioned arrangements, by Benton Wedge, Paul Von  Mertens and Morna Roberts were new, fresh, expansive/expressive but still easily recognizable. The well-filled comfortable venue was filled with appreciative patrons; by all accounts the concert was successful. The members of 4SPIEL were as comfortable and excited as the audience itself.

Bethany Thomas vocalizing


The song list included:


-“Back In the U.S.S.R”, John Lennon-Paul McCartney, 1968; the title was a parody of Chuck Berry’s “Back in the U.S.A.” Performed as an instrumental, sans the up-tempo piano and lead guitar riffs, it took one’s mind immediately to recent Russian/ American relations- as well as to the legendary Beatles.


-A 3-song medley, played “attacca” and beautifully expressed by Thomas, consisting of “A Change is Going to Come”, Sam Cooke, 1964; “What’s Going On”, Marvin Gaye, Ronaldo Benson and Al Cleveland, 1971; and “Can’t Get Next To You”, by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, (notably recorded by The Temptations as well as by Al Green). The Sam Cooke song was inspired by an incident in his life when he was turned away from a “whites only” motel in Louisiana; it’s an ode to the struggle for black civil rights. The inspiration for the Marvin Gaye song was a police brutality incident; unfortunately, our news reports are still full of such incidents.

Monica Reilly addresses the crowd


-“Blue Rondo a la Turk”, Dave Brubeck, 1960; conceived as part of the  experimental LP “Time Out”,  it’s filled with unusual time signatures set in classical forms.


- “Sing God a Simple Song”, a hymn from “Mass”, by Leonard Bernstein, 1971,  (text by Stephen Schwartz), commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy for the opening for the opening of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. Based on the Tridentine Massof the Roman Catholic Church, this is a work of work of musical theater. Certainly the assassination of this President and the subsequent murders of his brother and multiple civil rights leaders set an ominous tone to these years- as did the Vietnam War.


-“Not a Day Goes by”, from the musical comedy “Merrily We Roll Along, by Stephen Sondheim, 1981


Carmen Kassinger, Lisa Fako, Margaret Daly and Monica Reilly

-Select movements from “String Quartet No. 8 by Dimitri Shostakovich”, 1960; this isa composer tyrannizedby a despotic regime.  Called “The most loved of all his quartets,” this somber, tragic, yet thrilling piece is dedicated to the victims of fascism and war.


-“Purple Haze” by Jimi Hendrix, 1967; the piece has always been an anthem of psychedelic freedom of mind (and not necessarily about drugs) constructed of pure sound.  Filled with dream-like imagery, it’s also definitely a song of love and desire. As performed at this concert, without the multi-tracking or reverb, this arrangement brought that aspect out with a focused intensity.


-“At Last” released in Etta James’ debut studio album of the same name, 1960; this is a song written by Mack Gordon and Harry Warren for the musical film “Sun Valley Serenade”, 1941. Often chosen for weddings and used in films, it was performed by Beyonce’ at the first inaugural ball given for President Obama.


4SPIEL and Bethany Thomas at The City Winery 2/19/2017

-“Desperado”, by Glenn Frey and Don Henley, 1973 (notably recoded by The Eagles and Linda Ronstadt.) The song was written “In the style of old songs by Stephen Foster”, according to Henley, who has called it “A Southern Gothic thing”. This extremely romantic call to put aside abstract notions of freedom (“That’s just some people talking”) and let yourself be loved is a reminder that the music of these turbulent times contained constant adjurations to peace and love.


-“Bohemian Rhapsody”, by Freddie Mercury for Queen, 1975; continually on lists of “the greatest songs of all time”, “Rolling Stone” magazine noted “Its influence cannot be overstated, practically inventing the music video 7 years before MTV went on the air”. It was reverently performed by 4SPIEL.


Carmen Kassinger describing the music

“Hallelujah”, by Leonard Cohen, 1984; often played in films and television soundtracks, with many different arrangements, the original composition contained several Biblical references. Singer k.d. lang has  said she believes the song is about “The struggle between having human desire and searching for spiritual wisdom”.


4SPIEL has been described as “A consortium of Chicago area musicians committed to stretching the boundaries and expectations of chamber music. With a string quartet at its core, the group reinterprets classic works along with giving voice to contemporary and new work across all genres”. There can be no question that the pieces played during “Sounds of Change”, each a classic of it’s type, were given a new spin. Hard rock became symphonic, pop became operatic, and musical theater became orchestral.

Happy audience members at The City Winery 2/19/2017


 With the addition of the very powerful voice of Bethany Thomas, a singer capable of a range described as “Somewhere in between Neko Case and Chaka Kahn”, we heard unique and vibrant renditions.   For example, her delivery of “Can’t Get Next To You” altered the quick pace and of, course, the multi-lead vocals laid down by the Temptations, but also moving beyond the torch song cover of Al Green. Thomas’ version was a heavy-duty sensually driven saga of frustrated desire, with a truly broad range of emphasis.  She also put a ton of personality into her version of “Desperado”, a sexy country-rock ballad as originally performed by the Eagles, also made famous with a punchy cover by Linda Ronstadt; Thomas belted out with hauntingly beautiful touches of tightly controlled empathy. All in all, this was a concert that will long be remembered.

Margaret Daly, Bethany Thomas, Carmen Kassinger, Lisa Fako and Monica Reilly


All photos courtesy of Elliot Mandel

Published on Feb 27, 2017

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