Wednesday, October 9, 2019



Led by Music Director Mei-Ann Chen, Chicago Sinfonietta’s season opener highlights the current endangered state of the world and acts as a call to conserve

Guest Review
by Catherine Hellmann

It’s not every day that an audience is treated to fabulous music, an education from the conductor, a multicultural orchestra, and a free tree (well, a stick for now) in a container to take home as a physical, lasting memory of the experience.

Chicago Sinfonietta was praised by the Chicago Tribune as being “the city’s hippest orchestra,” and it is easy to see why. The evening began with Principal Percussionist Jeff Handley receiving recognition for “The Ford Musician Award for Excellence in Community Service” for his dedication to underserved students in Chicago for 15 years. 

Next, there is the sheer diversity of the ensemble. It is truly exciting to see so many women and musicians of all races in the orchestra. The opening conductor was Jonathan Rush, who is a Project Inclusion Conducting Fellow. The program is another facet of the Sinfonietta that sets them apart from other orchestras--developing young, diverse talent for conducting and leadership. One of their past participants now plays with the prestigious Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. 

Three of the dynamic compositions, collectively named Earth Triptych which focused on the environment, were world premieres. Each selection was unique: The Soul of Gaia by Stefan Smith depicts the land, undisturbed before humans. Earth “before money, politics, chaos, uncontrolled destruction.” The second movement, by Michelle Isaac, a composer based in Chicago, invokes a rain dance ritual with wind and thunder. Some of the sound effects were provided by the audience where we were instructed to tap our laps for light rain and clap for the heavier rain. (Another unusual feature was seeing the musicians participate through singing or wind “blowing,” not just the expected playing of their instruments.) The peaceful music was interrupted by the jarring blast of the trombone section to depict pollution. By the third movement, earth is in dire straights: the last movement is entitled Extinction and Rebirth. As stated by the composer, Fernando Arroyo Garcia-Lascurain, “This is the reckoning, like a terrifying fire ablaze in the distance. Things are beyond urgent-there is chaos.” By the end, the only thing remaining is hope. 

Maestro Mei-Ann Chen exhibits astounding enthusiasm and passion for the material. She also has to be one of the most gracious and generous conductors I have ever seen, acknowledging many of her players at the conclusion of pieces, applauding soloists and sections. The composers were brought onstage after their selections were played and presented with flowers. The Sinfonietta is a joyous group with a conscience--even their programs were made entirely from recycled paper!

To further their message and mission, the Sinfonietta included activities that addressed positive impacts on our planet: 

From their website: “Plus, join us in the Grainger Ballroom during intermission for BRIDGE — our audience engagement program sponsored by Macy's! Create your own seed bombs with Plant Chicago, learn how to be zero-waste with Collective Resource Inc., immerse yourself in a rare plant installation with The Plantier, take home a free tree from The Chicago Region Tree Initiative, learn how to protect Lake Michigan with The Shedd Aquarium, and more! “ 

I told my companions that I really did see audience members walking around holding plants. My daughter popped up and announced she would go get a tree to take home. Um...we live in a condo with a tiny yard, so where was she planning to keep this tree? “In my room,” she explained. Silly me---of course! (We were still debating a name for her stick, er- tree--on the way home…) 

The second half featured Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67. We all know it best from those famous opening four notes: “Da-da-da-DUUUUUM!” Maestro Chen had all of us sing it as part of her introduction. I was thrilled to hear this complete symphony. I am sentimental for Beethoven, my father’s favorite composer. My dad was also a violinist, gardener, birdwatcher, and environmentalist way before it was cool, so he would have adored the concert and the mission of the Chicago Sinfonietta.

My guests enjoyed the show. Courtney from Out of Town said she loved the venue and acoustics at Orchestra Hall. She didn’t expect the concert to be so “engaging” with Maestro Chen explaining what we were about to hear and the significance of the piece. Courtney felt like the audience was really a participant, not a passive listener. She also commented how the Maestro obviously “super enjoys what she does.” I was thinking how much kids would enjoy this interesting concert and was pleased to see so many children at intermission. 

My daughter Camelia, the Tree Girl, had the funniest summary of the whole experience: “It was definitely the Liberal Agenda, but in the best possible way.” Explain further? “Lots of diversity on stage, a woman conductor, music about global warming, giving away’s everything a Conservative Southernor thinks we do in the North that’s so terrifying.”
Out of the mouths of teenagers...  

As the Chicago Sinfonietta describes themselves: “We are an orchestra in action. We are looking forward to a season-opening that makes our audience reconsider the role of classical music — and how it can quite literally change the world.” 

Bravo on a memorable night of through-provoking, glorious music.  

Catherine Hellmann is a theater lover, lover of books, Mom of three, longtime educator, and at one point in her life, delivered singing telegrams.

The nation’s most diverse orchestra, Chicago Sinfonietta is thrilled to present the standout 2019-2020 season opening concert, Forces + Fates: The Beauty and Volatility of Planet Earth, a performance centered on awe, imperfection and disorder found on Earth and how the future may rest in the hands of the human race. Forces + Fates looks not only to push boundaries, but also help raise awareness and spread knowledge on this critically timely topic through music. Featuring Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, the “fate” symphony plus a world premiere work commissioned by Sinfonietta, listeners will experience a musical journey that celebrates the beauty that surrounds us while posing the question of what do we need to do to protect the planet. 

Chicago Sinfonietta’s performances will occur Saturday, October 5, 2019 at 8 p.m. at Wentz Concert Hall, 171 E. Chicago Ave., Naperville, and on Monday, October 7 at 7:30 p.m. at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave., Chicago.

Under the direction of 2019-2020 Assistant Conductor and Project Inclusion alum Jonathan Rush, Chicago Sinfonietta will open the season with Felix Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture, Op.26, which allows audience members to explore the astonishingly geometric Fingal’s Cave, known for its natural acoustics and spine-shivering harmonies in the British Isles. Music Director Mei-Ann Chen takes the podium for the rest of the concert and will conduct a world premiere piece commissioned by Chicago Sinfonietta, Earth Triptych, composed by Stefan L. Smith, Michelle Isaac and Fernando Arroyo Lascurain. A three-part co-composed work, Earth Triptych explores life before humanity, present time and the mystery of the future, in a dark, yet hopeful piece. The three composers of Earth Triptych each bring a distinct voice to this work, yet each movement leads cohesively to the next.

Referencing the rainmaking rituals and the evolving nature, Clarice Assad’s Nhanderú showcases the worshipping rituals of the Amazonian Tupi-Guarani tribes when asking for help with their crops. Forces + Fateswill also feature George Walker’s Lyric for Strings and the concert ends with Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, Op. 6. 

“The Chicago Sinfonietta is an orchestra that thrives on reflecting the important conversations of our society. Therefore, it is not surprising to see the Sinfonietta opening the new season with a very hot global topic which is also a very innovative one relating to orchestral repertoire,” said Mei-Ann Chen, music director of Chicago Sinfonietta. Besides the obvious choices of works inspired by nature, such as in the case of Mendelssohn and also in the new work by our dear friend, Clarice Assad, our brand new Sinfonietta commission will feature three composers of diverse backgrounds piecing together a new symphonic sketch centered around Earth’s past, present and future through the Earth Triptych. With our Mother Earth facing more detrimental threats than ever, we need Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony to remind us that our fates are intertwined and only universality and the brotherhood/sisterhood of mankind can save our planet!”

“My relationship with Chicago Sinfonietta stems back to 2008 as a viola fellow in the Inaugural Class of the Orchestral Freeman Fellowship. Maestro Freeman gave me the opportunity to showcase the second movement from my first symphony during the annual Martin Luther King concert of 2009. So, I’m extremely excited to collaborate with them once again on this project,” said Stefan L. Smith. “It is clearly evident that climate change is real, and I try to do my part in taking the necessary steps to contribute to helping this cause. It is only fitting that I feel called to musically create a change within us to respect our beautiful planet. My movement, entitled “The Soul of Gaia,” takes the audience on a journey through the majesty of our planet before civilization. In the first movement, a serene flute solo leads the listener to constant changes of harmony, symbolizing the evolution of our planet. I feel that it accurately displays the vast, serene, and introspective qualities of the place we call home.”

“Music is a powerful tool for experiencing empathy. Uncommon in a concert setting, Forces + Fates has an important theme of environmentalism, allowing Chicago Sinfonietta concert goers to both celebrate the beauty of the earth and to reflect on our responsibility to ensure the earth’s longevity,” said Michelle Isaac, Chicago-based composer and orchestrator. “As the composer of the second movement of Earth Triptych, I felt a responsibility to tell the tempestuous story of the present relationship between humans and earth. The middle movement illustrates a symbiotic relationship devolving into one of parasite and host, often putting the listener on edge. It is my hope that this piece, along with the rest of the program, invites a dialogue of empathy surrounding our current climate crisis.”

Fernando Arroyo Lascurain, Composer and Violinist who is working with Chicago Sinfonietta for the very first time added, “Having composed pieces inspired by the social and natural climate of our world in the past, collaborating with such a talented group was a welcomed prospect. The third movement is a mixture of ominous grandeur, intimate introspection and uncertainty. In light of recent events regarding climate change, orchestral works like these provide a space to reflect on the consequences of our actions as a society and how it affects this beautiful planet we call home.”

To celebrate the start of the 32nd season in advance of the Chicago performance, Chicago Sinfonietta’s Associate Board is hosting Prelude 2019: Rhythm + Flow Monday, October 7, 2019 at 5:30 p.m. at Symphony Center. The annual fundraising event features networking, cocktails, hors d’oeuvres and silent auction and raffle, with the opportunity for local young professionals to interact with major players in the arts community. Tickets range from $40 to $100 each.

Since its inception, diversity, inclusion and bold and dynamic programming have been at the center of Chicago Sinfonietta’s mission. In 2016, Chicago Sinfonietta was one of just 14 organizations in the nation to receive the MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions – the “genius award” for nonprofit organizations. The Sinfonietta was also selected in 2016 by the Chicago Innovation Awards in recognition of its innovative approach to programming.  Prior to that, Chicago Sinfonietta was named by ASCAP as the recipient of the 2011-12 Award for Adventurous Programming and in 2013 was dubbed, “the city’s hippest orchestra” by the Chicago Tribune, always embracing the daring programming that has been part of its history. 

Chicago Sinfonietta is grateful to concert sponsors Walder Foundation and William Blair. Season sponsors including BMO Harris Bank, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois, Southwest Airlines, Fairmont Hotel, Hotel Indigo, Northern Trust and its season media sponsors including Chicago Reader, Chicago Magazine, NapervilleMagazine, WBEZ and Chicago Tribune. 

Tickets to Forces + Fates: The Beauty and Volatility range from $10 to $62 when purchased in advance online. For tickets or more information, please visit

About the Sinfonietta
Now in its 32nd year, Chicago Sinfonietta has pushed artistic boundaries to provide an alternative way of hearing, seeing and thinking about a symphony orchestra and is dedicated to promoting diversity, inclusion, racial and cultural equity in the arts. Each concert experience blends inventive new works with classical masterworks, each from a diverse array of voices, to entertain, transform and inspire. In 2016, Chicago Sinfonietta was the proud recipient of John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s prestigious MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions (MACEI). This award recognizes exceptional organizations that are key contributors in their fields.

The orchestra was founded by Maestro Paul Freeman to address the disconnect between the utter lack of diversity in orchestras and the vibrant, nuanced, communities for which they play. For more than 32 years, Chicago Sinfonietta has made it their mission to represent the city of Chicago, reflecting that vibrancy on stage and in their programming, making classical music accessible for anyone. In everything they do, Chicago Sinfonietta is inspired by founder Paul Freeman (1936-2015). The orchestra’s 32 years have been highlighted by six European tours, two Kennedy Center performances, three Millennium Park concerts attended by over 21,000 people and 16 recordings, including Project W, which was released in March 2019.

About Mei-Ann Chen
Innovation, imagination, passion and dynamism are the hallmarks of conductor Mei-Ann Chen. Music Director of the MacArthur Award-winning Chicago Sinfonietta since 2011, and Artistic Director & Conductor for the National Taiwan Symphony Orchestra Summer Festival since 2016, Ms. Chen is acclaimed for infusing orchestras with energy, enthusiasm, high-level music-making, and galvanizing audiences and communities alike. A sought-after guest conductor, Ms. Chen’s reputation as a compelling communicator has resulted in growing popularity with orchestras globally.

North American guesting credits include appearances with the Symphony Orchestras of Atlanta, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Chicago, Detroit, Fort Worth, Houston, Indianapolis, Oregon, River Oaks Chamber, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, Toronto, and Vancouver. Overseas engagements include the symphonies of BBC Scottish, Denmark’s National, Aalborg, Aarhus, and Odense, Sweden’s Gävle, Gothenburg, Helsingborg, Malmö, and Norrköping, Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra at the Concertgebouw, Norwegian Radio and Trondheim, Finland’s Tampere Philharmonic, Austria’s Grosses Orchester Graz, Germany’s Badische Staatskapelle Karlsruhe, Brazil’s São Paulo Symphony Orchestra, and National Taiwan.

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