"Rightness in the Rhythm" Review- The Chicago Sinfonietta with The Marcus Roberts Trio

On Friday, May 12 at Wentz Concert Hall of North Central College in Naperville and again on May 15, 2017, at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan, the Chicago Sinfonietta with The Marcus Roberts Trio closed it’s 2016-2017 season with “Rightness in the Rhythm: 100 Years of Symphony and Jazz”.

Deanna Tham conducting The Chicago Sinfonietta in the overture to "Treemonisha"

 The rousing and vibrant concert opened with Guest Conductor Deanna Tham leading the Sinfonietta in the overture to “Treemonisha”, Scott Joplin’s opera composed in 1911 but first performed in 1972. It is not a ragtime piece, like so much of Joplin’s work, but has a musical style described as “the popular romantic one of the early 20th century”. The opera’s theme, that education is the salvation of black Americans, is an apt one for the Sinfonietta, begun by the legendary black conductor Paul Freeman and now the most diverse and inclusive orchestra in the world; indeed, Tham herself has been a "Project Inclusion Conducting Freeman" fellow. The overture was performed with vitality and a bluesy feel, a sympathetic and idiomatic expertise.


Chicago Sinfonietta musicians John Floeter on bass, Jeff Handley on Drums and Matt Lee on trumpet performing "Variations: Swing Low; Sweet Chariot"

Composer Michael Abels’ “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” Variations, 1993, followed, featuring a trio of hot Sinfonietta musicians up front: John Floeter, bass; Jeff Handley, drums: and Matt Lee, trumpet. Abels is known for his “Ability to adapt the structural elements of popular music into the symphonic idiom”, and this was just such an interpretation. The sultry sounds of the old spiritual were captured and expanded, then juxtaposed with a jazzy improvisational feel and a controlled symphonic overlay.

 After these, the Sinfonietta performed the two most famous George Gershwin compositions, “An American In Paris”, 1928, and “Rhapsody in Blue”, 1926, the latter in which they were joined by The Marcus Roberts Trio. In between, the Sinfonietta performed three dance episodes from “On the Town”, 1944, by Leonard Bernstein.


The Marcus Roberts Trio with Conductor Mei-Ann Chen and The Chicago Sinfonietta

“An American In Paris”, subtitled by Gershwin as “A Tone Poem for Orchestra”, was lovingly presented, filled as it is with spirit and great jazz/blues harmonies. The famous “strolling” melody, soon overtaken by taxi horns, gave way to unusual pairings and rapid changes in mood and tempo.

 The 3 short Gershwin pieces, “The Great Lover”, the pas de deux “Lonely Town” and “Times Square”, together form an orchestral concert piece of great charm, described as “A peculiar and fresh blend of symphony, jazz, pop and Coplandesque Americana”. The first dance is quick and busy, breaking into swing, the second is a softer, bluesy and tender work suitable for a love duet, and the third is a rousing jazzy rhythmic piece, bringing on the intermission. Vibrant Conductor Mei-Ann Chen brought out the rich orchestral underpinnings in the 3 works.


Marcus Roberts, piano; Rodney Jordan, bass; Jason Marsalis, drums

“Rhapsody in Blue” found the heavily improvisational Marcus Roberts Trio joining the Sinfonietta with stylish sass; this trio is well known for its virtuosity, creativity and balanced performances. This piece, which established Gershwin’s reputation as a serious composer, has long been known as on of the most popular American concert works. With the addition in equal measure of master pianist Roberts, the superb Jason Marsalis on drums and Rodney Jordan on double bass, this work, originally composed for solo piano and jazz band, was rendered classically precisely yet colorfully jazzy. Marcus Roberts proved himself a skillful articulator of the sprightly yet complicated rhythms, and the concert ended with joyful applause, bringing on the delightful encore, for which the Marcus Roberts Trio returned to Gershwin, presenting a complicated and witty version of “I’ve Got Rhythm”, 1930. This jazz standard, containing a long famous chord progression known as the “rhythm changes”, is the foundation for many other popular jazz works, and has come to symbolize both George and Ira Gershwin’s work- (Ira wrote the lyrics)- as well as the swing era in general.


Guest Conductor Deanna Tham with The Chicago Sinfonietta

All photos by Chris Ocken

For information and tickets to all the great events and concerts with The Chicago Sinfonietta, go to the Chicagosinfonietta website        



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