at Orchestra Hall

May 21

It’s tough to be a second orchestra in Chicago. Just ask anyone who was involved with the now-defunct Orchestra of Illinois, which was the winter name for what still becomes the Lyric Opera Orchestra in the fall and the Grant Park Symphony in the summer. Why then is the Chicago Sinfonietta succeeding where the Orchestra of Illinois failed? Two major reasons that I can see: a unique sense of purpose and strong musical leadership.

The Orchestra of Illinois was basically an effort on the part of the Lyric Opera Orchestra to extend its tiny season with symphonic programs. But little thought was given to filling programming voids left by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra or to bringing in strong conductors with vision and imagination. The Sinfonietta decided from its inception in 1987 to try tapping a market that had never really been investigated by the CSO: the city’s many ethnic groups and novice concertgoers. Choosing to make the orchestra a sinfonietta–a small symphony of about 45 rather than a massive orchestra of 100 plus–meant fewer than half the usual number of players had to be paid; it also meant the orchestra could pick from the repertoire of chamber-orchestra pieces as well as perform many works in the standard repertoire in their original proportions. (Large orchestras only began appearing in the late 19th century, but the large-orchestra aesthetic is still often forced onto earlier music by organizations such as the CSO, so that the full orchestra has something to do, even if the music often dictates against such large forces.) The Sinfonietta also has a gifted music director, Paul Freeman, who has loads of recording credits and numerous successes with the Grant Park Symphony, the CSO, and other major orchestras. His programming blends the familiar with the unfamiliar in an unintimidating way for the concert novice, and he has an individual vision of how that music is to sound as well as the ability to transmit that vision to an orchestra. That’s a formula for success. Three seasons are hardly sufficient to tell whether the Sinfonietta will become a permanent local fixture, but its success so far should mean it will be around a long while.

Last week’s program, which concluded the Sinfonietta’s season and which was conducted by Freeman, was a magnificent display of the orchestra’s programming and a good indication of its performance level. It began with Charles Ives’s The Unanswered Question, which was taken a tad too fast and too loud for my taste but which featured beautiful string playing, well balanced by an offstage trumpet and by winds placed in the first balcony. The effect was impressive and moving. Freeman brought out the work’s extroverted qualities, and though I would have preferred more introspection, he brought off what he wanted to communicate with great skill.

This was followed by an interesting curiosity, an orchestration of Schubert’s four-hand Grand Duo for Piano by the 19th-century violinist Joseph Joachim. Joachim’s mentor Brahms thought this work was originally the lost Gastein Symphony–a rather weak conjecture. Joachim’s orchestration is very uncharacteristic of Schubert, and this piece owes as much to the late-19th-century sound world of Brahms as it does to the early-19th- century sound world of Schubert. Schubert’s orchestrations were always changing colors, and bits were cleverly tossed about and divided among various sections of the orchestra; Joachim’s orchestration is homogenous with an obnoxious overdose of string sonority. The result is a slow, ponderous work with little timbral contrast, despite Freeman’s effort to make a case for it.

Ravel’s Concerto in G for Piano and Orchestra is often performed by pianists who have a wonderful sense of the work’s impressionism but little sense of its jazz roots and syncopated rhythms. Pianist Leon Bates offered an original account of the work that was definitely rooted in the jazz world and that made the work’s outer movements swing–a memorable performance in many respects. His technique was quite impressive, his rhythms flawlessly executed, though with little give to them. Bates’s rhythm is a bit too metronomic–as if he were afraid to play with it. And because he was so precise in meter and rhythm, the result was often mechanical and harsh; his account of the second movement, which ought to be somewhat ethereal to contrast with the outer movements, was so mechanical you could count the beats as he was playing them. Yet I enjoyed Bates’s playing, and he could very well develop into a first-class pianist if he goes a little more with his musical instincts. (The fact that he’s also an amateur bodybuilder should help make him a role model for kids.)

The program ended with some orchestral fireworks, “Three Dances” from Smetana’s opera The Bartered Bride: the act-one polka, the act-two chorus to the joys of beer-drinking, and a circus arrival portrayed in the “Dance of the Comedians.” All three are quite frivolous. Still, Freeman had thought them through musically, and he featured brisk tempi and crisp, clean ensembling, yet also managed to reveal nuances. It was a fitting dessert for a well-balanced and enjoyable musical evening.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jane Cameron.