Whatever the future may hold for Mei-Ann Chen’s reign as music
director of the Chicago Sinfonietta, one can’t say her tenure was
launched in an offhand way.
Chen’s inaugural concert Monday night at Orchestra Hall kicked off
with the Kennedy-King Marching Band and the Anima Singers of Greater
Chicago joining her and the orchestra in the Jimmy Van Heusen-Sammy Cahn
classic My Kind of Town, in a snappy new arrangement by Joe Clark.
Opening flash, several fulsome speeches and assorted hoopla apart,
it’s clear that the 38-year-old Taiwan-born conductor brings to the
Sinfonietta podium charisma and an animated musical personality — a
dizzying 180 from the plodding competence of founder Paul Freeman, who
had become increasingly frail in recent years.
One could hardly wish for a greater contrast in podium styles than in
the blazing performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, which was the
clear highlight of Monday night’s concert.
Chen didn’t do anything particularly idiosyncratic interpretively in
this warhorse. What she did bring was a textural clarity, rhythmic bite,
dramatic force and laser-like concentration. Not a single bar sounded
routine, with this crackling performance rising in intensity from the
famous opening motif through the blazing final bars.
“She’s a little bundle of fire,” said one elderly lady in attendance,
and indeed Chen’s hyperkinetic direction is a wonder to behold. But her
podium style is not so much about flamboyant self-display as vehemently
urging and inspiring the orchestra members to playing of greater power
Freeman bequeathed to Chen a solid, often inspired band of musicians
as shown by the full-blooded responsive playing under her baton. There
were fleeting ensemble lapses in the violins, the Sinfonietta horns
remain problematic, and the corporate sound is dry and muted in
coloring. But the raw material is certainly there for a highly motivated
young conductor like Chen to make the changes that will take the
Sinfonietta to the next level.
The first half of the concert proved less inspired, more due to the
lackluster repertoire chosen than any lack of commitment in the
Ann Hobson Pilot was the evening’s soloist. Principal harpist of the
Boston Symphony Orchestra for 40 years, Pilot retired in 2009 but has
clearly kept her technique in admirable repair as shown in two works.
William Grant Still’s Ennanaga takes its name from a type of
Ugandan harp. Yet far from anything exotic, this concise,
three-movement work for harp, piano and strings is cast in Still’s
familiar rustic, amiable but decidedly slight style.
The work is almost a concerto grosso at times with the harp soloist
called upon to perform accompanimental figures nearly as much as
individual moments in the spotlight. As so often with Still, the slow
movement is the most indelible section, with its introspective main
theme. There’s not much to do in this lightweight work but Pilot was a
fluent and expressive soloist, bringing delicacy and nuance to her
cadenzas. Donald Mead was the uncredited piano soloist.
Somewhat more substantial was On Willows and Birches, a harp
concerto composer and longtime Boston Pops leader John Williams penned
for his colleague Pilot on the occasion of her retirement from the
Cast in two movements, the first section is Impressionistic and
mysterious with high percussion and harp passages to the fore. Here
Pilot was given more expressive opportunities and she brought a striking
array of subtle hues and dynamic detailing to her playing. The second
and concluding movement rounds the work off in angular bustle. Pilot
shined in an extended cadenza and Williams rounds off the concerto in a
lively, aptly cinematic coda. Chen and the orchestra provided their
soloist with close and attentive support in both works.
The concert proper led off with Saibei Dance by An-Lun
Huang. Chen programmed this curtain-raiser in the 2009 Sinfonietta
concert that landed her the music director job, so it’s clearly a
good-luck charm of sorts. Like most Chinese music composed during the
Cultural Revolution there’s nary a hint of contemporary political
horrors, yet the work is colorful and smartly orchestrated and Chen and
the musicians delivered a fiery and volatile performance.
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