The Chicago Sinfonietta, an orchestra long committed to promoting diversity and inclusiveness on both sides of the footlights, is taking its venturesome programming up a notch beginning next season.
The move, as explained by executive director Jim Hirsch and Mei-Ann Chen, the sinfonietta's Taiwan-born, American music director, is the outgrowth of longterm planning conversations among board and staff members and musicians that began last fall. The idea behind the organization's so-called "Blue Ocean Strategy," the directors say, is to give concertgoers unusual, thematically unified programs of the sort they won't find anywhere else in the Chicago area.
"While we have done a lot of innovative programming since our inception in 1987, we think there's an opportunity to take this a little bit further and to make these (concert) experiences even more unique and different," Hirsch explains.
"Basically what we are trying to create is not just a concert but a unique concert experience, so that every concert is like a journey," adds Chen, now in her second season as the group's artistic chief, and her third as music director of the Memphis Symphony. "We distinguish ourselves from the many wonderful ensembles in the city by taking risks, by being truly creative in what we offer our public."
That pretty much describes the eclectic, even audacious slate of concerts the sinfonietta will be presenting during its 2013-14 season. The season of five programs will run Sept. 14-May 12 at Wentz Concert Hall in Naperville and Symphony Center in Chicago. All but two of the concerts will be conducted by Chen.
The season opener, Sept. 14-15, a collaboration between the orchestra and the Chicago hip-hop dance ensemble FootworKINGz, is emblematic of the group's renewed populist approach. Members of the local youth group Kuumba Lynx will take part in arranger Sam Shoup's "Orchestral Dance Mix," a suite of music and hip-hop dancing that will incorporate bits of Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake," excerpts from Florence Price's First Symphony and a musical surprise or two.
(Price, who lived and worked in Chicago for most of her life until her death in 1953, was the first black woman in the U.S. to be recognized as a symphonic composer. Chen will direct Price's 1934 symphonic suite, "Mississippi River," as part of her subscription-series debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in May.)
Rachmaninov's Symphonic Dances will close the sinfonietta's season opener. "Doing the Rachmaninov gives me a chance to work with the musicians and grow the ensemble we have established," Chen says. "That's equally important as we try new and crazy things at the same time."
The orchestra's annual "Day of the Dead" concerts on Nov. 9 and 11 will include expressions of grief and joy inspired by the Mexican celebration of Dia de los Muertos. Featured will be a special treatment of movements from Mozart's Requiem Mass by Chicago's Redmoon Theater Company. The DePaul University Choir, soprano Elizabeth Norman and violinist Ade Williams also will participate in the program.
Another yearly tradition is the orchestra's tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The centerpiece of the Jan. 19-20, 2014, concerts will be the North American premiere of Dutch contemporary composer Jacob TV's "Mountaintop," a work for gospel choir, video and chamber orchestra that will incorporate Dr. King's famous 1968 "I've Been to the Mountaintop" speech. The Apostolic Church of God Sanctuary Choir will take part.
Hirsch admits he was skeptical going into "Mountaintop" for the first time. "Here was this guy messing with one of the most iconic speeches of all time," he says. But he came away struck by the work's immense emotional power. "I thought it revealed Dr. King's humanity and vulnerability in ways I'd never experienced before. I have no idea how this is going to play with our audiences, but it will elicit a response – I guarantee you that."
Two rising young conductors, Alexandra Arrieche and Joseph Young, will take charge of the March 22-24 program, a "Global Dance Party." Arrieche, assistant conductor of the Baltimore Symphony, will lead the all-Brazilian first half. Young, assistant conductor of the Phoenix Symphony, will direct the rest of the program. Joining them will be the Brooklyn-based disc jockey DJ Rehka, who will lay his Indian bhangra beat on several dance numbers, including a grand finale involving both conductors. If everything goes according to plan, there will be "a flash mob of 40-50 bhangra dancers" in the audience, according to Hirsch.
"Hopefully the audience will get into the spirit of it, and they will all get up and do some bhangra dancing of their own at the end," he says.
The series finale, May 9 and 12, will unite Jewish and Chinese musical traditions. Chicago composer Ilya Levinson's exuberant "Concerto for Klezmer Band and Orchestra" will bring the Maxwell Street Klezmer Band front and center. Another concerto, this one for guzheng (Chinese zither), will have its local premiere on the second half – "Identity: Zhongshan Zhuang," an East-meets-West fusion piece by the Los Angeles-based composer Michael Gordon Shapiro.
Hirsch says the orchestra's efforts to market itself as what Chen calls "the coolest boutique orchestra in the nation" is beginning to attract younger listeners.
"We are actually seeing the average age of our audience members declining, so that the sweet spot of our audience is now between 35 and 54," the executive director reports. "We think that with next season's programming we might see that demographic skew even lower." Hirsch smiles. "I'm cautiously optimistic."
The Chicago Sinfonietta's current season continues with the Chicago premiere of Simon Shaheen's "Concerto for Oud and Orchestra" and William Levi Dawson's "Negro Folk Symphony." Concerts under Chen's direction are at 7:30 p.m. April 19 at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205 E. Randolph Drive; and 8 p.m. April 20 at Wentz Concert Hall, 171 E. Chicago Ave., Naperville; $26-$50. For further information on upcoming concerts and the 2013-14 season, call 312-236-3681, ext. 2;or visit chicagosinfonietta.org.
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