at Orchestra Hall

September 27, 1988

The Chicago Sinfonietta, which prides itself on being an affirmative action organization, is the latest in a long line of midsize orchestras that have sought recognition despite the lengthy shadow of the Chicago Symphony. It faces formidable odds. As far as I can recollect, no other professional orchestras–“professional” in the sense that that’s how the musicians make their living–have managed to last more than five subscription seasons in the Loop.

It is, of course, premature to predict the fate of the sinfonietta. One can, however, appreciate its strategem–developing a base in the western suburbs (at Rosary College), far from music-saturated Evanston and Hyde Park, while maintaining a presence downtown. And it ought to be congratulated for having galvanized the local ethnic communities. Its board of directors is a who’s who of prominent civic leaders. Not only do they help underwrite some of the concerts but they also find new audiences–far less homogeneous audiences than the usual classical music crowd.

At the season opener a fortnight ago, the balcony of Orchestra Hall was packed with school-age kids. This age group is of particular interest to Paul Freeman, the sinfonietta’s founder and permanent conductor. A self-proclaimed didact who recently retired from his post in Victoria, British Columbia, to spend more time here, Freeman aspires to be another Bernstein–a mass-media music communicator. And he has his sights set on Chicago. Certainly his goal is made easier by his knowledge of musical styles, all of which he treats with equanimity and enthusiasm. No further proof was needed than this evening’s program: it had something for everyone.

For die-hard classicists, there was Mozart’s Symphony no. 29, the finest example of his middle group of symphonies. It was written when the composer was barely out of his teens and immediately after his return from Vienna, where he had learned from Haydn the more concentrated and intricate manner of string-quartet writing. This “chamber symphony” is a model of economy and intimacy. Outwardly lively and amiable but inwardly purposeful and subtle, it demands sharp playing from the strings and light coloration from oboe and horn. The sinfonietta’s strings sounded surprisingly taut and precise for such a youthful ensemble; they played so gracefully that one could overlook the stray notes from the wind section. Still, it was not first-rate Mozart. Freeman seems to regard Mozart as 18th-century Muzak. His interpretation came across as too pretty, too enervated, too simple-minded for my taste.

For partisans of contemporary music, “Antiphonys for Chamber Orchestra” was on the bill. Written in 1968 by George Walker, one of the black composers Freeman has championed, it is a well-crafted exercise in the anonymous “international style” beloved by academics. A sound cluster here, a sound cluster there, a touch of dissonance now and then, add up to a series–albeit a brief series–of empty gestures. A former recitalist, Walker seems to be an expert on instrumentation, but his music is in dire need of a personality. Even though the sinfonietta played the piece energetically, it could not bring out Walker’s invisible signature.

For connoisseurs of the voice, and for just about everyone else, the high points of the evening were provided by Martina Arroyo, a soprano who’s appeared on The Tonight Show more often than Pavarotti. It’s easy to understand her appeal: an imposing figure and a dusky timbre that reminds people of Leontyne Price. And she has a flair for the dramatic. In Knoxville: Summer of 1915, Samuel Barber’s ode to Americana, she accentuated the music’s languor, heightening its wistful nostalgia in an unexpected way. It may not have been the most poignant rendition I’ve ever heard, but it came close. In “Pace O Mio Dio” from Verdi’s La forza del destino, she was in turn defiant, insistent, and lamenting, skillfully negotiating the lovely soaring phrase that is Leonora’s motto. Even for those unfamiliar with the opera, the aria’s heart-rending pathos was transparent. In both these works, the orchestra accompanied with delicacy and a sense of awe.

Manuel de Falla’s ballet suite The Three Cornered Hat rounded out the evening. A robust, crowd-pleasing specimen of the tone-poem travelogue, it juxtaposes assorted Iberian folk melodies, conjuring up what must have been to the turn-of-the-century listener an exotic tale of flirtation and rebuff. This type of music is best served loud. The sinfonietta’s performance was not only loud but punctuated by moments of becoming vulgarity. The kids loved it.

Looking over the remainder of the sinfonietta’s schedule, I’m impressed by the lineup of distinguished guest soloists, but I wonder about the programs’ consistent blandness. For the most part, they are nothing more than the standard diet of Mendelssohn and Mozart concerti and such, all too familiar to CSO patrons. Chicago Sinfonietta’s predecessors opted for the same route–trying to be the poor man’s CSO–and we know what happened to them.

Perhaps Freeman believes that it’s necessary to lure new and young audiences–from both the western suburbs and the inner city–with heavy doses of the classics. One essential difference in the sinfonietta, however, is the number of ethnic and third-world composers it is giving their first local hearing. In this strange and enticing brew, let’s hope, is the right formula for longevity.