Chicago Sinfonietta opens season by celebrating immigrants

Mei-Ann Chen
Chicago Tribune

By Howard Reich

Immigrants built this country, and if you don’t believe it, you weren’t at the opening of the Chicago Sinfonietta’s 31st season Monday night in Orchestra Hall.

This intrepid organization , which continuously redefines what a symphonic concert can be, on this evening explored “ID: Images of Diversity.” Meaning that every work on the program represented a distinct cultural tradition, all of which – like the ethnicities they represented – found a home in America.

The concert, as Sinfonietta chief executive officer Jim Hirsch told the crowd, was “about the gifts that people from other countries have brought here” – and how those cultural treasures enrich a nation.

No work on the program expressed that point more explicitly than Peter Boyar’s sprawling, multimedia opus, “Ellis Island: The Dream of America.” For as Sinfonietta music director Mei-Ann Chen led the orchestra, historic black-and-white images flickered on a large screen and actors from the Steep Theatre Company read poignant testimonies from those who once passed through Ellis Island.


How often, after all, does a symphonic concert present orchestral work by the great jazz/stride pianist James P. Johnson? Not often enough, a situation addressed when Chen led the orchestra in Johnson’s “Drums – A Symphonic Poem.” The piece paired Roaring ’20s rhythms with European symphonic instrumentation, its exultant finale ranking among the composer’s most compelling work.

Elsewhere in the evening, Chen and the Sinfonietta captured the Cuban undertone of Mexican-born composer Arturo Marquez’s Danzon No. 2 and sweetly dispatched Aaron Copland’s “Variations on a Shaker Melody,” two more facets of American multiculturalism.

Remarkably, all of this unfolded “at a time of religious bans, deportations, of family’s being separated,” conductor Chen told the audience.

The music showed a better way.

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