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Chicago Sinfonietta offers a musical potpourri for season opener

Music Director Mei-Ann Chen will lead Chicago Sinfionetta.  |  Courtesy Chicago Sinfionetta

Music Director Mei-Ann Chen will lead the Chicago Sinfionetta. | Courtesy of Chicago Sinfionetta

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Updated: November 4, 2012 6:18AM

For the 25 years since its birth by pioneering African-American conductor and music researcher Paul Freeman, I’ve been attending the Chicago Sinfonietta’s concerts and reacting with tears and surprise.

No other classical institution so consistently challenges expectations and breaks down walls around players, soloists, composers and audiences. Every minute of a Sinfonietta performance defies stereotypes that “they” don’t like “our” music — or that “we” don’t like “theirs,” depending what side of the color line chance has planted you. No orchestra audience listens with such passion and cheers with such exuberance. Such was the case Monday night, when the Sinfonietta performed a season-opening program at Symphony Center.

In addition to the many African-American, Latino and other musicians of color in the 80-plus orchestra, under Freeman and his Taiwanese-born successor Mei-Ann Chen, the presentation of excellent soloists of all backgrounds and the selection of lesser-known or neglected works or works fusing various music traditions is more than enviable. The audience, in age, family presence, race and economic background is mixed like no other.

Then why the occasional head-shaking? Under Freeman, some consternation followed his unfortunate physical setbacks and his stubbornness (not uncommon among conductors in general) about yielding his baton as the years went on. Under Chen, with the high level of musical partnership that she and the players have already achieved, sometimes you wish the Sinfonietta would just play great music already and dispense with the mad dash for variety and potpourri.

Monday night, the energy level was exciting yet distracting, from the surprise, concert-launching appearance of the amazingly talented kids from Chicago CircEsteem, rolling, twirling, vaulting and unicycling, to an unannounced performance of young Peruvian composer Jimmy Lopez’s “Fiesta,” to the often frantic mugging of Brooklyn-based PROJECT Trio (complete with a Jethro Tull salute by its flutist) to a double marimba, double percussion-battery movement from a work of Israeli composer Avner Dorman.

That said, Whitney M. Young High School seniors Eric Goldberg and Shuya Gong, African-American and a native of China, respectively, were captivating soloists in the first movement of Dorman’s 2006 “Spices, Perfumes, Toxins!” Veterans of Patricia Dash and Douglas Waddell’s Chicago Symphony Orchestra Percussion Scholarship Group, the two were also amusing and well-spoken musical advocates in a stage-change interview with Chen.

The Brahms Hungarian Dance No. 5 and the 1919 Suite from Stravinsky’s “Firebird” opened and closed the program (which was also given over the weekend at the Sinfonietta’s suburban home, Wentz Concert Hall at North Central College in Naperville); each was beautifully and stirringly led and played. PROJECT Trio was a game substitute for the Sinfonietta’s earlier plans for a collaboration with new music wizards eighth blackbird. But why not trim one of the program’s many elements and perform the full “Firebird”? Chen and the Sinfonietta are good enough for that.

Andrew Patner is critic at large for WMFT-FM (98.7).

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