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The Sinfonietta presents silent films and classical music Review- "Dia de Los Muertos" is celebrated

By Debra Davy

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On October 29 at The Wentz Concert Hall at North Central College, Naperville, and on Monday, October 31 at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan, Chicago, The Chicago Sinfonietta celebrated “Dia de los Muertos: The Dance of Life and Death” with a terrific program of music and film, under the baton of Maestro Mei-Ann Chen. In fact, this holiday is celebrated throughout the world, as “All Souls Day”, “All Hallows Eve”, the autumnal equinox, the Celtic “Samhain”, and more. The concert was conceived as a global and unifying journey through the human soul. Some of the instruments, the Sinfonietta members,  and especially the audience wore spectacular holiday garb.

Lobby of Symphony Center for "Dia De Los Metros" concert; photo courtesy of Debra Davy

Before the official start of the program, Chen appeared in a Cub’s hat and the Sinfonietta played “Take me out to the ball game”; Chen hardly needed to encourage the audience to sing enthusiastically along. This orchestra always comes up with new, fresh and expansive programming, and Halloween night, when this reviewer attended, it was no exception- an unusually diverse mix of people and performance.

MeiAnn Chen and the Chicago Sinfonietta-photo courtesy of Chris Oaken

First on the program were two movements from Osvaldo Golijov’s “Last Round” for string ensemble, 1996, written in tribute to the man known as “The Last great Tango composer”, Astor Piazzolla, felled by a stroke in 1992. The title was ‘borrowed” from a short story about boxing by Julio Cortazar, used as a metaphor for an imaginary final fight for the great Piazzolla’s spirit. Golijov himself described the piece as “a sublimated tango”. At the behest of Maestro Chen, the viiolins and viola players all stood as though in a traditional tango. Their bows flew over the instrument, “transforming pattern into pure passion” in this spirited and lively piece, which spiraled faster and yet faster, yet still gave the impression of weeping until the music came to a complete hushed stop.

The next piece presented was “Overture" to Heinrich Joseph Von Collin’s 1804 tragedy “Coriolan” by Ludwig van Beethoven, (Op.62), 1807. The two contrasting themes, in C minor and E-flat major represent “Coriolanus’ resolve and war-like tendencies” coupled with “the pleadings of his mother to desist”. Whie he gives in to tenderness, exemplified by the ballet-like movements of Mei-Ann Chen, he cannot turn back and kills himself. Once again, the stunningly lovely piece ends with a a concerted and immense quietude.

Conductor Mei-Ann Chenn; photo courtesy of Chris Oaken

Before the intermission, the silent film “Night on Bald Mountain”, with 1933 animation by Russian engraving artist Alexander Alexeieff and his wife Claire Parker was shown in black and white on a giant screen behind the Sinfonietta while they performed the piece of that name by Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky, 1867, as arranged by another famous Russian composer, Nicolay Rimsky-Korsakov, 1886. This film is known to be “one of the most unusual and unique looking animated films ever created”. There are images both horrifying and delightful, a stream of consciousness ghostly set of sequences of animals and spirits - a screaming child, the moving moon, white faced worshippers- all created by an ingenious device known as a Pin-Screen, which refracts light and makes extensive use of shadow imaging.

The music itself, from a series of compositions inspired by Russian literature, fit the film – and the holiday -perfectly; it was composed as a “musical picture” on the theme of a witches ’Sabbath, a tone poem. Five years after Mussorgsky died, Rimsky-Korsakov published his arrangement, which has been described as “a fantasy for orchestra”. Spooky, eerily beautiful and poignant, the version arranged by Leopold Stokowski in 1940 gained it’s greatest exposure in Walt Disney’s “Fantasia”.

"Night on Bald Mountain"; photo courtesy of Chris Oaken

After the intermission, the concert continued with 4 segments from  the Chicago premiere of “Popol-Vuh” by  Los Angeles based composer Carlos Rafael Rivera, 2008,  accompanied by projected written storyboards narrating the myth of The Mayan People’s “Book of the People”: “First Creation”, “Birth of the Hero Twins”, “Third Creation” and “Xibalba”. It is first and foremost a story of creation of the world. Rivera, whose work has been performed by “some of the world’s brightest young stars”-like our Mei-Ann Chen- was present at Symphony Center. This work, like other of his compositions, is an orchestral piece that juxtaposes “his passion for cross-cultural folklore and music”. It was dramatic, sweeping and vibrant, distinctly a modern Latin creation.

"Danse Macabre" at "Dia de los Muertos" concert; photo courtesy of Jasmin Shaw

 French composer Camille Saint-Saens’ “Danse Macabre”, 1874, was then memorably performed along with the 1922 silent black and white film of the same name courtesy of Chicago Film Archives; the visual presentation was accomplished thanks to the assistance of Visual Symphony Productions. The experimental film project was conceived by Adolph Bolm (who starred in it as well) and directed by Dudley Murphy, with lighting and filming by the world-renowned artist Francis Brugiere and animation by F.A.A. Dahme. The music was synced with the film at it’s premiere and the Sinfonietta was exquisitely in sync with it’s projection. The story is introduced with titles explaining the setting- plague-ridden Spain- and then the silent film unfolds to a dance between the lovers (including the great dancer Ruth Page) and the Satanic skeleton representing Death.

"Danse Macabre" with the Chicago Sinfonietta; photo curtesy of Jasmin Shaw

It is difficult to tell who triumphs as the images superimpose each other in spectral, scary sequences. The music, another tone poem, in G minor, began as a song for voice and piano, reworked with a solo violin replacing the voice. The piece opens with a harp playing the “D” note a dozen times- it is midnight, the hour when Death calls the dead from their graves to dance. Then the solo violin enters playing the tritone (the Devil in music). A solo flute introduces the first theme, fragments of theme are produced through the orchestra’s sections, called forth commandingly by Chen, and then the piece sweeps into energetic drama before dawn breaks and the skeletons metaphorically return to their buried state. Briefly, Chen conducted with large skeleton-hand gloves!

The penultimate piece on the program was “Pizzi/Cuban Polka”, 2014, composed for The Miami Symphony Orchestra, another Chicago premiere by Carlos Rafael Rivera, named after “The Pizzicato Polka” by Johann Strauss II and his brother Josef Strauss, 1869-70. In the original piece as well as this fanciful and lighthearted take, the elegant four-melody piece is scored for strings, with contrasting tunes, returns, and a lively sense of color. It was festive and made use of triangles as a lighthearted touch. Once again, Rivera took a joyous bow on stage- receiving a warm hug from Chen.

Carlos Rafael Rivera with Conductor Mei-Ann Chen; photo courtesy of Chris Oaken


Finally, the last piece presented was the stunningly sonorous “Sones de Mariachi”, 1941, by Mexican composer Blas Galindo. The stimulating, fun and sensual piece of work calls forth the “juicy” melodies played by folk instrumental ensembles. It was rich and many-layered, deceptively simple in shape, providing a celebratory and life enhancing close to a truly wonderful concert experience.

Sinfonietta patron; photo courtesy of Debra Davy


For information and tickets to other terrific performances by the world’s most diverse orchestra, known locally as “the city’s hippest orchestra”,  go to the Chicago Sinfonietta website









Published on Nov 07, 2016

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