Review: Sinfonietta offers a rousing and eclectic MLK birthday program

01.17.12
Mei-Ann Chen
Chicago Classical Review

By Wynne Delacoma

Mei-Ann Chen, the Chicago Sinfonietta’s new music director, sometimes refers to herself as “a young Asian lady,” deliberately evoking the stereotype of a petite woman with a ready smile and quiet voice that the phrase implies.

At first glance, the 38-year-old conductor who was born in Taiwan and relocated to the U. S. in her mid-teens, fits the stereotype well. But a fierce desire to communicate through music burns in her soul, and that ferocity was on vivid display at the Sinfonietta’s annual program honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Monday night in Symphony Center.

Chen succeeded Paul Freeman, the Sinfonietta’s founder, in the fall, so Monday’s concert was her first time sharing the stage with the mighty Apostolic Church of God Sanctuary Choir. When the current season was being planned, she said in remarks to the audience, she was delighted for the chance to work with the choir, a frequent guest at the Sinfonietta. But, she acknowledged with a rueful smile, she quickly realized she had “no idea how to do gospel music.”

Maybe so, but Chen is apparently a quick learner. During the concert’s second half featuring the choir she shared conducting duties with two of the ensemble’s leaders: H. Chip Johnson, Jr., director of music, and Willetta Greene-Johnson, choir conductor. Exuberant, gifted conductors, they set the hall rocking with full-throated, uptempo singing from the choir and savvy, charismatic soloists, alto Rev. Ivory Nuckolls and tenor James Hudson.

But Chen’s conducting style, intense and highly expressive, is ideal for gospel music. She drew a similarly expert blend of weighty, blended choral sound and heaven-storming emotion from the musicians in the two gospel works she conducted: Total Praise for chorus and orchestra, and Champion, for chorus, orchestra and tenor soloist Travis A. Newsome.

The program’s new work was the world premiere of Harambee: Road to Victory, a sunny, 10-minute jazz-inflected piece for flute, choir and orchestra by Nicole Mitchell. A noted jazz flutist and composer, Mitchell played with the Sinfonietta for several years before relocating to California last year. A family emergency kept Mitchell from appearing as soloist herself in Harambee, but a young Chicago woodwind player and composer, Kedgrick Pullums, stepped in with confidence. At times his bright, powerful flute soared and whirled in syncopated ecstasy, at times the mood was more meditative. But he easily rode the big, uptempo waves of choral and orchestral sound deftly shaped by guest conductor Jeri-Lynne Johnson.

The concert opened with three classical orchestral pieces: Kodaly’s Dances of Galanta led by Chen, Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3 from Fidelio led by Johnson, and Central Park in the Dark by Charles Ives, which featured both women on the podium. The Sinfonietta played both the Kodaly and Beethoven with impressively clean phrasing and subtly shaded color, but both works sounded episodic, lacking a sense of cohesive sweep.

Central Park in the Dark, with its dark, quietly rustling undercurrent intermittently interrupted by cheery outbursts, could not have been more haunting, however. Under Chen’s direction, the Sinfonietta’s strings evoked a mysterious, slowly unfolding universe. When the woodwinds, directed by Johnson, and piano burst into bits of honky-tonk high spirits, the sense of pulsing life pushing against a big, quiet city was compelling.