Chen launches new era for Sinfonietta with blazing Beethoven

September 27, 2011
Chicago Classical Review
Lawrence A. Johnson

Content

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 and intensity.

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 performances.

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 Boston Symphony.

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.