Sinfonietta’s season finale a success by any measure

Mei-Ann Chen
Chicago Sun-Times

By Andrew Patner

There’s a lot of talk these days by major symphony orchestras and opera companies about community engagement.

Large cultural institutions should have good connections with the cities they call home. But this talk often leaves out those smaller, more nimble organization that are already community-based. Few outfits can do more for an audience and potential audiences than a community-focused musical enterprise. And few such groups can do more or better among these than the Chicago Sinfonietta.

For its season closer this weekend, the Sinfonietta gave concerts (at Wentz Concert Hall at North Central College in Naperville and at Orchestra Hall in downtown Chicago) that looked at the idea of cities in music. In one repeated program, the Sinfonietta was able to present an unusual bill, premiere not one but four commissions, include music from the 19th century (Johann Strauss Jr.’s 1868 “Tales from the Vienna Woods”) to now, feature work from the African-American heritage of the group’s origins, and offer movements of larger works to reflect greater variety and a mosaic effect. All of these things don’t necessarily fit with or create too many burdens for a more traditional ensemble.

Central to the program was “ChiScape,” a four-movement work curated by Pulitzer Prize-winner and composition professor Jennifer Higdon, along with the Chicago Architecture Foundation. Four solid young composers were each paired with a great modern Chicago building or structure and asked to write a five-minute movement. The Philadelphia-based Higdon oversaw the knitting together.

Cuban-Puerto Rican Armando Bayolo, based in Washington D.C., started with Renzo Piano’s Modern Wing for the Art Institute of Chicago in “A Shelter That Filters the Sky,” and he effectively gave a sense of shape and shaping of light and space. Chinese-Canadian Vivian Fung, already a fast-rising figure, caught the combination of sensuous curves and hard Chicago building structure in Jeanne Gang’s apartment tower Aqua.

Flint, Mich., native, and Berklee School of Music prof Jonathan Bailey Holland has been impressing listeners from his school days at Interlochen, through the Curtis Institute and a Ph.D. at Harvard. His “Shards of Serenity” somehow conjured Mies van der Rohe’s S.R. Crown Hall at the Illinois Institute of Technology with long horizontal lines of sound evoking the glassed-in columnless space and its unexpected senses of peace and inspiration. Chris Rogerson, 24, and a prodigy even in a field well-acquainted with prodigies, has been composing with great seriousness since age 10. The upstate New York native, now a doctoral fellow at Princeton, drew the finale based on, what else?, Frank Gehry’s exuberant Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park. In his “Open Air,” listeners can almost feel fireworks following the curves of Gehry’s sculpted shell.

Saturday at Wentz Hall, music director Mei-Ann Chen and the Sinfonietta played each movement as if it were a standard of the old-core rep. Each composer had a curtain call after his or her movement, and all four took to the stage again at work’s end to hearty cheers.

A part of Higdon’s own urban portrait, the middle movement, “river sings a song to trees,” from “City Scape,” her 2002 examination of Atlanta, opened the program’s second half after jester Michael Daugherty’s intentional musical reference-check hodgepodge “Red Cape Tango” movement from his “Metropolis Symphony” (1993), based, indeed, on Superman, closed the first. Her sound pictures of quiet settings amid urban whir were the perfect lead-in to Duke Ellington’s early 1950s “Harlem,” his first work initially conceived for symphony orchestra as opposed to big band. As orchestrated by Luther Henderson and with jazz players added to the Sinfonietta stands, Wentz Hall was appropriately jumping.

The diversity of the Sinfonietta membership and downtown audience is echoed in Naperville. And so are the honest statements made in the aisles and lobby by novice concertgoers. One young ticket¬holder approached an elder with the shout, “I loved this. Every minute. And this was my first time ever!” The listener took her by the hand maternally and marched her over to the subscription desk to sign her up for next season. And just behind them, a multi-generational family was comparing notes: Of Chen, the mother said, “She managed to make them all play together without saying a word. I wish I could do that with you all at home.”

That’s community. That’s the Sinfonietta.