"Unhinged" Review - The Chicago Sinfonietta Opens the 2016-2017 Season

On September 17 and 19,2016, the Chicago Sinfonietta under the baton of maestro Mei-Ann Chen opened the 2016-2017 season, its 29th, at Wentz Concert Hall of North Central College and Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan, respectively, with “Unhinged”, presenting 6 pieces and showcasing the Juilliard- trained piano virtuosos The Anderson and Roe Piano Duo and Clayton Stephenson, 17, a 10th grade scholarship student at The Julliard pre-College Division. Stephenson is the first African American pianist to matriculate in this program, so his performance with the Sinfonietta, literally the world’s most diverse orchestra, is of a piece with his career thus far.

Anderson-Roe; photo courtesy of Lisa Marie Mazzucco

Elizabeth Joy Roe and Greg Anderson have been called “the most dynamic piano duo if this generation” and it has been said that they are “known for their adrenalized performances”. Roe, in particular, throws her entire person into the performance; her hands move in staccato bursts, her head and shoulders in dramatic motion. Roe, a solo pianist performer as well as part of the duo, has had a multifaceted career with “a diverse range of artistic projects and collaborations”. Greg Anderson, pianist, composer, video producer and writer, likewise performs as a solo artist around the world – the two are widely known for their innovative four-hand technique. They demonstrated this at “Unhinged”; when seated at the same piano, their arms would intertwine, separate, seem to be in the same place at once; when seated across from each other at two pianos placed back-to-back, the audience could observe them both simultaneously, a pas de deux of brilliance. Young Stephenson, an award and scholarship winner, performed with dexterity and aplomb.

The program presented was almost as unique and inclusive as the orchestra itself.

The Chicago Sinfonietta at "Unhinged"; photo courtesy of Chris Ocken

It began with the Overture to “Ruslan and Lyudmila”, the best-known piece from the opera in 5 acts composed between 1837 and 1842 by Mikhail Glinka, based on a poem by Alexander Pushkin.  It is interesting to note that Pushkin did not write the libretto himself as planned because of his untimely death in a famous duel! Glinka, known as the father of Russian romantic music is also credited with pursuing the development of full melodies. The overture employs elements of Russian folk music, “imaginative dissonance” Eastern elements and the use of the entire tonal scale. The music was rich, triumphant and thrilling.

 

Next on the program was the 1947 version of “Petrishka” by Igor Stravinsky; the Sinfonietta was joined for this piece by Anderson and Roe. First composed in 1910-1911, the ballet burlesque tells the story of the loves and jealousies of 3 puppets. It is considered a “perfect fusion of music, choreography and décor’, but the music certainly stands alone with it’s stated theme “the timeless tragedy of the human spirit”. The 1947 revision was scored for a smaller orchestra, and, as Mei-Ann Chen enthusiastically described, “We want to show you how the piano is so versatile”. She also introduced us to the world of this ballet, describing the puppets, leading us into the festive orchestral introduction at a 12th night fair. As she explained to the audience, the evening’s pianists are “fearless”. Music history reveals to us that prior to the premiere of the ballet, Stravinsky and several other pianists used a 4- hand version for rehearsals. We heard and saw a fine facsimile of that splendid version during “Unhinged”. The drums boomed, the sound of the Sinfonietta and the great Stravinsky drenched the concert hall; the program describes the role of Anderson and Roe in this piece as “a cameo performance”, but it was a strong introduction to what was to come.

Anderson-Roe; photo courtesy of Brent Cline

Last on the bill before the intermission was the Anderson and Roe version of “Billie Jean” by Michael Jackson, 1983. The 2 pianists at a single piano literally pound out ‘a series of deep dynamic runs with ominous fervor”, and one realizes that the music underlying the lyrics of Jackson’s iconic “Moonwalk” anthem, described as “an ode to paranoia” has been augmented with chords and a new brooding sound. One can still discern a danceable bass line as the 4 hands of the two pianists fly across the upper registers. The tension mounts, the words almost seem to echo in the air, and then the piano dramatically fell silent.

 

After the intermission, Clayton Stephenson, alone at the Steinway, performed Variations on “I Got Rhythm” by George Gershwin, which debuted in 1934. Described as “a piano showcase of the highest order”, it was the final concert piece composed by Gershwin. Elegantly and almost daintily, the 17 year old piano prodigy brought forth the subtle and stunning jazz music into the hall.

Clayton Stephenson; photo courtesy of The Chicago Sinfonietta

The penultimate piece of the evening was also this reviewer’s favorite. Anderson and Roe performed French composer Francis Poulenc’s “Concerto for Two Pianos in D Minor” (FP61), 1932. Poulenc himself described the piece in 3 movements as “an enormous step forward”. Throughout the concerto, the  2 pianists play nearly constantly, not always accompanied by the orchestra; it has been said that “Poulenc created a dramatic yet charming dialogue between the 2 keyboards and the supporting orchestra ensemble”.

 

Finally, the evening closed with “Viva la Vida”, by the British alternative rock band “Coldplay”, 2008, as arranged by Anderson and Roe. The song’s title is taken from a painting by Frida Kahlo and literally means “Live the Life”. It was written by all the members of the band to celebrate Kahlo’s triumph over pain. The music as written and as played by the great duo soars in with big sounds, with bells, chimes, and an almost “grandiose” instrumental arrangement. At the conclusion, the duo led the audience through and out with a long chorus of “oh’s”.

Anderson-Roe; photo courtesy of Lisa Marie Mazzucco

 

For more information on and tickets to Chicago’s great Sinfonietta and their upcoming concerts, go to the Chicago Sinfonietta website

 

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