Cosmic Convergence Review - The Chicago Sinfonietta presents a Planetary Program

On Monday evening, May 23, 2016, the Chicago Sinfonietta, the most diverse orchestra in the world, concluded it’s 2015-2016 season dedicated to former Conductor Paul Freeman, with “A Cosmic Convergence”, a remarkable program at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan, Chicago. Ten years ago, the Sinfonietta began it’s collaboration with video artist/KV 265 astronomer Dr. Jose’ Salgado, presenting his video accompanied by the music of English composer Gustav Holst’s “The Planets”.  In the decade since, the Sinfonietta and Dr. Salgado have renewed their partnership in joint programs that included the Sinfonietta’s performance of works by Ravel and Mussorgsky (excerpts from “Pictures at an Exhibition”) set to breathtaking videos.  The most recent encore performance demonstrated two world premiere videos of actual solar system marvels and incorporated the “greatest hits” of prior shows.

Dr. Jose' Francisco Salgado; photo courtesy of James Pugsley

Consistent with it’s tradition of diverse, contemporary, imaginative and innovative programming, the Sinfonietta received that night a MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions. It was also announced that Conductor Mei-Ann Chen, already dearly beloved in Chicago, had signed a contract to remain with The Sinfonietta for 2 more years. An orchestra member gave a loving accolade to the memory of Maestro Freeman, echoed in the words of Maestro Chen throughout the event.


The first half of the program was devoted to the music of the spheres against visuals of: Mars, with and without robotic rovers, including the trails of dust devils; the northern lights; black holes: and a tour around the universe. The videos were luminous and intense, often emitting colored light that seemed to envelope the entire orchestra if not the auditorium itself, and, as emphasized by Salgado, were “not science fiction, but science”. Salgado spoke enthusiastically of his work with KV265, a nonprofit, teaching children in various countries about the juxtaposition of science with art.The extraordinarily well-selected music enhanced and augmented the films, and the second half of the program, without the visual backdrop, was no less thrilling. Watching Mei-Ann Chen is itself an exercise in artistic expression. Her right hand holding the baton and controlling the beat, her entire person brimming over with exuberance, she calls forth the sound, swooping, encouraging, entirely engaged and engaging.

A Cosmic Convergence

-The first piece, “Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity”, from “The Planets”, is the fourth movement in a seven movement orchestral suite, written between 1914-1916, wherein each planet with it’s astrological character is set to music. It’s easy to see why the soaring lyrical piece is widely performed and also why many composers have attempted to add to or adapt it. Indeed, Holst set “Jupiter”, “by far the best-known melody of the suite”, to fit the meter of a poem, making it a hymn, in 1921.


-Juno-nominated Canadian born composer John Estacio wrote the two -movement composition, “Borealis”, after seeing the Northern Lights and being “completely captivated and awestruck by the magical sight of dancing light”. He describes the first movement, “Borealis”, beautifully performed by the Sinfonietta, as “attempts to capture the ethereal atmosphere”, and “the sudden colorful outbursts followed by moments of near silence”.


A planetary wonder

-“Un Bal” is the second movement from French composer Hector Berlioz’ five-movement “Symphonie Fantastique”, 1830, which tells the story of an artist who poisons himself due to unrequited love. At the ball, amid the festivities, his spirit is confused. The movement features two harps and “has a mysterious-sounding introduction that creates an atmosphere of impending excitement”.


- ”Pictures at an Exhibition”, composed by Russian  Modest Mussorgsky in 1874, orchestrated in 1922 by French composer Maurice Ravel, was based on 10 drawings and watercolors produced by Mussorgsky’s recently deceased friend, the architect/artist Victor Hartmann. The incredibly rich dramatic score, interspersed with a recurring “Promenade” theme, is instantly recognizable, and the last two movements, 9 and 10, performed by the Sinfonietta are the most renowned. They portray the Russian mythical witch Baba Yaga on the prowl and charging directly into the Great Gate of Kiev, where carillons ring to a majestic close. To call the piece thrilling is a serious understatement.

The Northern Lights

-Closing the plantetary portion of  the program was movement 1 of “The Planets”, “Mars, the Bringer of War”, 1914, initially scored for piano, about which it has been said, “the full horror of mechanized warfare confronts us face to face in this bleakest of all tone poems.” Under Maestro Chen’s baton, under the sublime images of Delgado’s videos, the horror was transformed into wonder.


After the intermission, sans video, the Sinfonietta performed 4 more pieces, two, (the second and last of the set) by American composer Michael Abels, (“Global Warming” and “Victory Road”) who took his bows with a broad smile and incidentally sat behind this reviewer attentively bent foreward, avidly listening.-“Global Warming” is Abels best known work, written around the time of the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War. Abels, described as “a composer with a gift for juxtaposing elements unleashed in an irresistible display of orchestral color” created this genre-crossing work with elements of Irish and Arabic folk music to celebrate the common threads of divergent cultures. The lustrous and rich piece was a perfect choice for the inclusive talents of the Sinfonietta.-“Victory Road” was composed as a biographical homage to Founder Paul Freeman, and presented as a world premiere. The musical was subtle, powerful and absolutely beautiful, knowingly performed with devotion.

Maestro Mei- Ann Chen and composer Michael Abels

-Puerto Rican born composer Roberto Sierra came to prominence in 1987 when the Milwaukee Symphony, where he was then artist-in-residence, performed his first major orchestral work,“Jubilio”, at Carnegie Hall. Opening the second set of the night, the piece is a gorgeous paean to celebration, demonstrating why he won the 2003 Academy Award in Music by The American Academy of Arts and Letters. The Award states: “Roberto Sierra writes brilliant music, mixing fresh and personal melodic lines with sparkling harmonies and striking rhythms”.


-Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s “Cappriccio Italien”, 1980,  ( Opus 45), is a fantasy for orchestra, based, like “Victory Road”, on folk tunes- Tchaikovsky was in Italy with his brother during Carnival, when he composed this piece of “bright primary colors and uncomplicated tunefulness”. Like all his music, the piece contains exquisite melody and romance, along with great power and a balletic element.

The concert was celestial- a sparkling close to a great season that justifiably honored Conductor Paul Freeman.

The wonders of science and of music


 For information and tickets to next season, go to the Chicago Sinfonietta website 


Unless noted, all photo credits courtesy of Chris Ocken 





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