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Violinist Melissa White shines in solo pairing at Chicago Sinfonietta

More than three decades ago, a conductor I’d admired from afar called to ask if we could get together over lunch.

I recognized Paul Freeman’s name immediately, because he had served as conductor of the landmark “Black Composers Series,” a boxed set of recordings documenting the work of William Grant Still, George Walker, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Olly Wilson and others who had been underrepresented in a white, Eurocentric music world.

But when we met, it wasn’t the “Black Composers Series” that Freeman wanted to discuss. Having led the Grant Park Orchestra in an evening of music by black composers and a “Symphony in Black” concert in Orchestra Hall, Freeman dreamed of creating an ensemble that would bring sorely needed diversity to our concert life.

“Chicago does not yet have an ensemble comparable to what the Chicago Sinfonietta is going to be,” Freeman told me. “I’m not trying to rap any other groups, but Chicago does not have a midsize symphony with as big a season and as broad plans as we have for the Chicago Sinfonietta.”

Though Freeman already was music director of the Victoria (British Columbia) Symphony and busily conducted around the world, he was determined to bring his vision to Chicago. In October 1987 he did just that, leading the sinfonietta in a program featuring the Chicago bow of soprano Wilhelmenia Fernandez, who played the title role of Jean-Jacques Beineix’s film masterpiece “Diva.”

The sinfonietta’s performance that night proved technically unsure, but by the next season it sounded transformed, finessing Walker’s intricate “Antiphonies for Chamber Orchestra” and other repertoire. In coming years, the sinfonietta redefined what a classical orchestra can be, collaborating with the Modern Jazz Quartet, pianist Ramsey Lewis, the Apostolic Church of God Sanctuary Choir, actor Danny Glover reading poetry of Langston Hughes, and other genre-stretching attractions.

Freeman died in 2015, at age 79, but the import of what he created was palpably clear Monday night in Orchestra Hall, where the sinfonietta celebrated the finale of its 30th season. Though the program ranged from sublime to silly (intentionally so), the high points were unforgettable.

Most inspiring by far was the work of 15-year-old cellist Ifetayo Ali-Landing, who played alongside violinist Melissa White in Saint-Saens’ “La Muse et le Poete” (“The Muse and the Poet”) with sinfonietta assistant conductor Kellen Gray leading the orchestra. Judging by this performance, it would be unjust to call Ali-Landing a prodigy, for she offered none of the annoyingly precocious ostentation that word connotes. Instead, Ali-Landing showed poise, restraint, control and interpretive insight.

For starters, Ali-Landing produced a darkly burnished tone that elegantly complemented violinist White’s brightly cast timbre in duet passages. In cadenzas, Ali-Landing chose to emphasize musical content over technical bravura, though she negotiated gnarly passages with apparent ease. Better still, Ali-Landing expressed an obvious understanding of the chordal and thematic structure of the Saint-Saens, essentially a compact double concerto with an emphasis on long, lyric lines. White’s tightly focused vibrato and soaring phrases provided welcome counterpoint to Ali-Landing’s downtown sinfonietta debut.

Accompanying both soloists in the orchestra was violinist Lucinda Ali-Landing, the cellist’s mother. Can you imagine a more rewarding Mother’s Day gift than her daughter’s lustrous performance?

The sinfonietta has enjoyed a long and prolific partnership with the Apostolic Church of God Sanctuary Choir, so it was fitting that sinfonietta music director Mei-Ann Chen opened the program leading both ensembles in the gospel fervor of Eugene Butler’s “How Excellent is Thy Name.” Though the over-reverberant acoustics of Orchestra Hall can devour consonants, as they did on this occasion, the tonal splendor of the Apostolic choir in tandem with a full-throated sinfonietta conveyed ample sonic impact.

True to form, the sinfonietta put its own spin on a suite from Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet” ballet, with onstage antics provided by Mucca Pazza, a splendidly costumed, semicomical marching band with street-theater attitude. Though Mucca Pazza’s performance shtick was less amusing than its let’s-try-anything members may have believed, a live video featuring hand-held dolls sending up Shakespeare’s narrative had its charms.

At the very least, the spectacle of so many performers crowding the stage underscored the many ways in which the sinfonietta has altered our expectations of what a symphonic ensemble can attempt.

Precisely Paul Freeman’s dream.

Howard Reich is a Tribune critic.
Twitter @howardreich


Howard Reich, Chicago Tribune
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