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Chicago Sinfonietta celebrates vitality in its annual Day of the Dead concert

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Chicago Sinfonietta

◆ 8 p.m. Friday

◆ Wentz Concert Hall, North Central College, Naperville

◆ Tickets, $40-$50

◆ (312) 236-3681, ext. 2;

Updated: December 4, 2012 6:09AM

Some classical programs focus on one or two major works. But others put a premium on breadth, offering a varied sampling of musical tapas.

Billed as a celebration of El Día de los Muertos, the Chicago Sinfonietta concert Thursday night at the Harris Theater fell solidly in the second category. However tenuous the connections of some of the works to the popular Mexican holiday, it offered an ideal excuse to explore a range of Latin American and Spanish music.

The lineup featured nine works by eight composers, including such famous names as Manuel de Falla and Alberto Ginastera. It was exactly the kind of program the orchestra, with diversity as its watchword, likes to perform.

On the podium was Gisèle Ben-Dor, a Uraguayan-born conductor right at home in this repertoire, even leading some works by memory. She offered animated, sometimes witty introductions, throwing in a little Spanish .

Originally scheduled to appear as soloist was Raul Jaurena, a noted player of the bandoneón.But the superstorm this week grounded him, and his absence inevitably took away some of the program’s musical punch. Thus there were last-minute changes, including the addition of a version of Argentine tango master Astor Piazzolla’s “Oblivion” featuring the oboe in the bandoneón’s usual central role.

This turned out to be one of the concert’s high points, with Ben-Dor and the orchestra conveying this music’s essential urgency and earthiness, and Sinfonietta oboist Deborah Stevenson coming through with an ardent, deftly shaped solo.

The night did not start out so well, though, with the Sinfonietta sounding tentative in the first few selections. The orchestra did not hit its stride until the final work of the first half, capturing the sweep and drive of José Pablo Moncayo’s “Sinfonietta” with a confident, full-bodied sound.

Aside from an inert take on Arturo Márquez’s “Danzón No. 4,” the second half contained many strong moments, starting with the romantic fervor the ensemble brought to Blas Galindo’s quiet “Poema de Neruda.” As a whole, the concert showed how alive a tribute to the dead can be.

Kyle MacMacMillan is a locally based free-lance writer.

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