Review of Chicago Sinfonietta presentation of “More Than a Letter” which celebrates self-identity and self-expression through the artistry of LGBTQ composers and musicians; featuring guest conductor Michael Morgan, concert pianist Sara Davis Buechner plus performances from Musicality and Allegrezza Singers

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By Amanda Runge

March 27, 2017

Monday, the Chicago Sinfonientta presented More than a Letter, a concert celebrating self-identity and self-expression through the artistry of LGBTQ composers and musicians. In addition to the Chicago Premiere of Pulitzer Prize and Grammy Award-winning composer Jennifer Higdon’s Peachtree Street, the evening featured performances by acclaimed concert pianist Sara Davis Buechner, the Chicago-based Musicality Vocal Ensemble of Curie High School, the Allegrezza Singers, and guest conductor Michael Morgan, Music Director of the Oakland Symphony.

Whenever I enter the Symphony Center, I immediately take a deep breath and feel like I am home. Walking in you are brought into the center of an impressive dome. It’s size and height makes one feel small and when you stand directly underneath it it is intimidating. The Chicago Sinfonietta is a professional orchestra dedicated to diversity and truly reflecting the diversity that exists in Chicago.  In classical music, this in itself is a lofty goal, which they have achieved beautifully. Watching the musicians collect on stage and start warming up I look up and am thrilled that the Chicago Sinfonietta lives up to its goal of diversity. The chatting in the crowd hushed as the Artistic Director of the Sinfonietta stepped onto the stage to introduce the performance. His words on the importance of the National Endowment for the Arts – an important sponsor for much of the Sinfonietta’s programming – were timely and seemed to resonate strongly with the audience. As he spoke people were involved; they oohed and ahhed and the excitement for the concert to begin was palpable.

Guest conductor Michael Morgan came out to great applause and Curie High School’s Musicality began the program. These talented singers from Curie High School were a Top-20 finalist on television’s America’s Got Talent. The stage was dark and they stood in the spotlights, then the singing started and I was blown away. The vocal refrain of this piece, “Stand in the Light” had a vocal refrain that stated “This is who I am inside. /This is who I am I’m not gonna hide./‘Cause the greatest risk we’ll ever take is by far/ to stand in the light and be seen as we are” reminding us all that, no matter our journey, we are working every day to be true to ourselves. Every one of the voices was different, but they came together perfectly. The orchestration was epic, with almost cinematic qualities.

The second piece was the overture from Leonard Bernstein’s Candide. The quick clipping tempi set the tone for an exciting piece. The strings kept up with the pace and the brass punctuated the line with explosive sound. The transitions in this piece could not have been more clear. The orchestra moved from legato to vivace with precision and elegance.

When the orchestra starting tuning to the piano for the next piece everyone’s focus moved to the center for Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini. The soloist Sara Davis Buechner entered and immediately set to work on a fabulous performance.  Her playing was involved and attentive.  She attacked the piece with enthusiasm whether it was the glorious fortes or the delicate pianissimos, her playing was superb.  The orchestra and soloist did not always move in tandem during the piece but they were both working towards a common goal.  The legato section was stunning and the runs were absolutely magical.  A beautiful piece overall both showing off the soloist and orchestra’s ability to make wonderful music. At the end the audience was immediately brought to their feet. Bringing Buechner out multiple times for bows that were well earned.

At intermission, there were interactive displays in the ballroom centered around the theme of self-identity and the LGBTQ community, including for writing letters of courage to a stranger, a coloring station, and a wall where the audience could write loving notes and then put them on to poster boards showing the homicide rates for different groups in the LGBTQ community. The beautiful words were even more moving on the back drop of such horrible facts.

When we came back to the theater Maestro Morgan gave a short introduction to the next piece, Samuel Barber’s Overture to The School for Scandal. This was the first piece Barber wrote for full orchestra. Written as a concert orchestra the overture starts dramatically with percussion and first violins. The whole piece tells the story of a vibrant, busy, scene. The gossip of scandal spreads out from one section to the rest of the orchestra. Beautifully articulated, this was a piece filled with joy.

Peachtree Street, from Jennifer Higdon’s City Scape, is a tribute to Atlanta, Georgia. Performing the final movement of the three-part piece, the orchestra transported the audience to the busy street. The theme is tossed from one section to the next and then together the sounds grow like the swell in a crowd. The orchestra dove into the intricacies of the piece beautifully, creating an enticing scene that made the audience feel that they were a part of the excitement.

“Elegy for Matthew,” the title of the penultimate piece, caught my eye the moment I opened the program. The brutal murder of Matthew Shepard in 1998 was a painful reminder to those who may not have known that people all over the country were (are) being beaten, bullied, and punished for being who they are. This piece started dramatically with the timpani, the sound of doom filled the theater, and the lights came down full black for the first time in the program. Spotlights in blue went to the choir loft to highlight Allegrezza, a group of professional singers from Chicago’s Andersonville neighborhood. The lyrics of the piece were highlighted by the orchestration. The singing was beautiful and expressive complimenting the dynamic and expressive playing in the orchestra. The second piece started in the brass section. The legato was simply gorgeous and the there was a sprinkling of xylophone that seemed to give hope. It ended with a stunning pianissimo.

The show ended with the Quintet and Somewhere from West Side Story, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s famous retelling of Romeo and Juliet, which brought the conversation around race relations to the forefront of its time. Once again Allegrezza were featured. What the voices lacked in perfection of vocal quality they made up for in passion, excellent diction, and beautiful intonation. Hearing the voices sing ”Somewhere” brought tears to my eyes: “There’s a place for us,/A time and place for us./Hold my hand and we’re halfway there./Hold my hand and I’ll take you there;/Somehow, Some day, Somewhere!” It was a stunning conclusion to a concert that left me asking the question, when will that time be?

 

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Chicago Sinfonietta celebrates artistry of

LGBTQ composers and musicians in

MORE THAN A LETTER

 

Program features guest conductor Michael Morgan and internationally acclaimed pianist Sara Davis Buechner plus a Chicago Premiere by Grammy Award-winning composer Jennifer Higdon and performances from Musicality and Allegrezza Singers

 

Wentz Concert Hall, Naperville, March 25

Symphony Center, Chicago, March 27

 

February 27, 2017 (Chicago, IL) – Chicago Sinfonietta presents its penultimate concert of the season, More Than a Letter, which celebrates self-identity and self-expression through the artistry of LGBTQ composers and musicians, and features guest conductor Michael Morgan, concert pianist Sara Davis Buechner plus performances from Musicality and Allegrezza Singers. The Sinfonietta performs More Than a Letter twice: first, in the western suburbs at Wentz Concert Hall of North Central College, Naperville, Saturday, March 25 at 8 pm, and then again in its downtown Chicago home venue of Symphony Center, Monday, March 27 at 7:30 pm.

 

For nearly 30 years, Chicago Sinfonietta has led the field of symphonic music in the areas of diversity, equity and inclusion, making intentional strides towards racial, cultural, and gender equality in the art form. In More Than a Letter, the Sinfonietta expands its efforts by shining a light on LGBTQ composers and musicians to explore gender identity and sexual orientation as they intersect with art, voice, and personal experience, as well as challenge labels of any kind.

 

Lead by guest conductor Michael Morgan, Music Director of the Oakland Symphony and former Assistant Conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the program begins with Curie High School’s professional caliber vocal ensemble, Musicality, who were recently featured on America’s Got Talent, joining the orchestra for a performance of Stand in the Light written by Lauren Christy and Grammy- and Oscar-nominated writer and producer Stephan Moccio. The first half continues with Leonard Bernstein’s clever and vibrant Candide Overture followed by Sergei Rachmaninoff’s tour-de-force Variations on a Theme by Paganini featuring internationally acclaimed pianist Sara Davis Buechner, who began her career as David and has shared her personal transition story nationally and internationally as an advocate for LGBTQ artists in the field for more than twenty years. Samuel Barber’s Overture to the School for Scandal opens the second half which then continues with the Chicago Premiere of Pulitzer Prize and Grammy Award-winning composer Jennifer Higdon’s Peachtree Street. The Allegrezza Singers join the orchestra for the remainder of the program including David Conte’s moving work Elegy for Matthew, written in honor of Matthew Shepard, a young, gay man who was the victim of one of the most notorious anti-gay hate crimes in American history and whose death spurred legislative movement toward extending the legal definition of hate crimes to attacks on sexual orientation. The concert then comes to a close with Bernstein’s Quintet from West Side Story and Somewhere featuring soloists from Allegrezza.

 

“I am thrilled to come back to Chicago to engage with two groups that were so important to me there, Chicago Sinfonietta and the LGBTQ community,” said Michael Morgan. “I think we’ve put together a program that is both entertaining and enlightening, and in the great Sinfonietta tradition, is inclusive of everyone. I am so proud to lead this special evening.”

 

Before the show and during intermission, audience members will also have the opportunity to explore identity and challenge labels by creating a self-portrait collage, writing a letter of courage to a stranger and by watching a series of coming out stories from the LGBTQ community presented by VideoOut, the largest collection of LGBTQ ally stories online.

 

On March 26, Chicago Sinfonietta will partner with VideoOut to present the second installment of their Chicago Story Collection Day, day-long effort to engage and amplify the voices of the LGBTQ community by filming personal narrative stories of coming out which will be shared on www.videoout.org. Chicago Sinfonietta and VideoOut invite all LGBTQ people and their allies to participate. The Story Collection Day will be held from 11am-4pm at the Alphawood Gallery at 2401 N Halsted Street. Details and instructions for how to sign up will be available soon on chicagosinfonietta.org.

 

More Than a Letter is sponsored in part by Aon and Hyatt with media support from Windy City Times and community partnership with Center on Halsted.

 

Title:                 Chicago Sinfonietta presents More Than a Letter

 

Dates:               Saturday, March 25 at 8:00 p.m. at Wentz Concert Hall of North Central College

Monday, March 27 at 7:30 p.m. at Orchestra Hall of Symphony Center

 

Tickets:            Single tickets range from $18-$99 for concerts at Symphony Center and $48-$60 for concerts at Wentz Concert Hall, with special $10 pricing available for students at both concerts. Tickets can be purchased by calling Chicago Sinfonietta at 312-284-1554 or online at www.chicagosinfonietta.org.

 

Program:

CHRISTY/MOCCIO

BERNSTEIN

RACHMANINOFF

BARBER

HIGDON

CONTE

BERNSTEIN

BERNSTEIN

Stand in the Light

Candide

Variations on a Theme by Paganini

Overture to the School for Scandal

Peachtree Street

Elegy for Matthew

Quintet from West Side Story

Somewhere

                           

Michael Morgan, guest conductor

Sara Davis Buechner, piano
Allegrezza Singers, choir

Musicality, choir

 

Now in its 29th season, Chicago Sinfonietta has pushed artistic boundaries to provide an alternative way of hearing, seeing and thinking about a symphony orchestra and is dedicated to promoting diversity, inclusion, racial and cultural equity in the arts. Led by Music Director Mei-Ann Chen since 2011, each concert experience blends inventive new works with classical masterworks, each from a diverse array of voices, to entertain, transform and inspire. In 2016, Chicago Sinfonietta was the proud recipient of John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s prestigious MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions (MACEI). This award recognizes exceptional organizations that are key contributors in their fields. The orchestra also received the Spirit of Innovation Award at this year’s Chicago Innovation Awards.  Learn more at www.chicagosinfonietta.org

 

Chicago Sinfonietta is grateful to its season sponsors including Cedar Concepts, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois, Southwest Airlines, Fairmont Hotel, Hotel Arista and NBC5. Chicago Sinfonietta also thanks its BRIDGE Audience Engagement sponsors Macy’s and PWC, as well as its season media sponsors including WXRT, Chicago and Naperville Magazines, and Chicago Reader.

 

 

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