Review of Chicago Sinfonietta’s Rightness in the Rhythm; Conclusion of its 2016-17 season by celebrating nearly a century exploring the connection between jazz and symphony from ragtime to Broadway

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Review by Amanda Runge

On Monday night May 15th I had the pleasure of seeing the closing show of the 2016-17 season of the Chicago Sinfonietta.  Under the direction of Mei-Ann Chen the orchestra closed the season with a history of jazz.

A Monday night concert is like a unicorn.   Most professional orchestras don’t play, no equity theatres have shows, it is a cultural dead night, so to speak. So I’m always interested to see who will come out.  Monday night, the crowd did not disappoint.   People of all ages, ethnicities gathered to see what the night had in store, and the Symphony center was packed.

If you haven’t been to the Symphony center in downtown Chicago, it is worth a trip.  Tonight, walking down Michigan Ave, the weather was perfect, 70 degrees, blue sky, an absolutely stunning night.  As you enter the theater you are greeted by plush red velvet carpet and bright lights.

The stage is set with a full orchestra, drum set and microphones for the trio.  The first piece was Overture to Treemonisha featured guest conductor Deanna Tham.  This woman was a graduate of Project Inclusion and this was her debut with the Sinfonietta.   She came on stage with the confidence of a much older conductor and took control of the orchestra with grace, elegance and strength.  The themes move through the orchestra going from a dancing beat to a more seductive mood. The piece was beautifully played and set the tone for the evening.

The second piece by composer Michael Abels called Variations on Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.  It started simply and beautifully with a solo clarinet.   Then the trio came in and immediately swung the beat.  The bass started that familiar beat and the solo trumpet took over. The trumpet player played beautifully. The orchestra then interrupts the trio and we were brought back to the clarinet and the simple tune.  Everything grew from that moving quickly to another variation.  This piece doesn’t stop!  It sounded like movie music.  This piece, in many ways, keeps bringing me back to a scene from a movie that doesn’t exist with dancing gentleman and a beautifully dressed woman.  It’s full and beautiful and the audience loved it.

The next piece was from An American in Paris.  The wonderful beginning immediately sets the scene of a busy Paris street. Played with stunning accuracy Gershwin certainly knew how to paint a picture.  You can see Gene Kelly dancing throughout the entire piece.   This piece is a great example of the marriage of Jazz and classical. Gershwin is a classical composer, but in An American in Paris he uses this “new” art form to write a beautiful hybrid.  The explosion at the end comes to one of the most epic conclusions.  Bringing it back the theme in the solo violin and then echoed throughout the orchestra.  The broad reiteration of the original theme, brought it to a very satisfying conclusion.

The fourth piece is by Leonard Bernstein- On the Town: Three Dance Episodes.   Over the next three movements Bernstein introduced many now famous themes.  The first starts with a light dancing motif that moved from one section of the orchestra to the next with heavy percussion.  The seductive start to the second movement moved from the woodwind section and was then taken over by the violins.  Then that playful motif came back, but this time with the full strength of the orchestra.  In the third movement the familiar New York New York theme fills the room, but it then slowed to a swing.  Throughout the entire piece the conductor could not be happier.   Her obvious passion and sheer happiness with this music was palpable and helped give life to this concert.

And then the banjo walks on stage…..The final piece of the night is Rhapsody in Blue by George Gershwin.  The Sinfonietta is joined by the Marcus Roberts Trio. The famous opening oboe was stunning.  This combination of Jazz trio and symphony plays of the strengths of both groups and puts them at a sharp juxtaposition.  As it changes from trio to symphony and back you can see how different they are.  The trio was agile, spontaneous, and in the moment.  Whereas the symphony though beautiful was bigger, and scripted. The combination is amazing. The pianist, Marcus Roberts, is one of the most fabulous I have ever had the pleasure of seeing.   As he improvises he even brings in parts of the Mozart’s famous Moonlight Sonata, combining both extreme classical technique and amazing jazz chops Mr. Roberts straddled both worlds with stunning ability.  The familiar theme of the piece is reiterated at the end bringing us back to the solo oboe.

Overall this was a beautiful end to the season, showing us all that though there may be different genres of music and different types of musicians, but together you can make something even more amazing.







Featuring world-renowned jazz musicians Marcus Roberts Trio

with Chicago Sinfonietta’s Assistant Conductor Deanna Tham


Wentz Concert Hall, Naperville, May 12

Symphony Center, Chicago, May 15


April 19, 2017 (Chicago, IL) – Chicago Sinfonietta, led by Music Director Mei-Ann Chen, concludes its 2016-17 season by celebrating nearly a century exploring the connection between jazz and symphony from ragtime to Broadway and beyond featuring the world-renowned Marcus Roberts Trio and a special guest appearance from Chicago Sinfonietta’s Assistant Conductor Deanna Tham. The Sinfonietta performs Rightness in the Rhythm twice: first, in the western suburbs at Wentz Concert Hall of North Central College, Naperville, Friday, May 12 at 8 pm, and then again in its downtown Chicago home venue of Symphony Center, Monday, May 15 at 7:30 pm.


This upbeat performance begins with ragtime pianist Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha led by Assistant Conductor Deanna Tham. Tham first joined Chicago Sinfonietta last season as part of the Project Inclusion Conducting Freeman Fellowship, a year-long program presented by the Sinfonietta that fosters the development of up-and-coming conductors of diverse backgrounds under the tutelage of Maestro Mei-Ann Chen. The concert continues with Michael Abels’ Variations on Swing Low Sweet Chariot featuring solo performances from Chicago Sinfonietta musicians John Floeter, Principal Bass; Jeff Handley, Principal Percussionist; and Matthew Lee, Principal Trumpet. Rightness in the Rhythm follows with two widely popular Broadway hits: George Gershwin’s An American in Paris concluding the concert’s first half followed by Leonard Bernstein’s On The Town: Three Dance Episodes which showcases three movements from his hit Broadway musical opening the program’s second half.


Just as this season began with virtuosic piano performances, the second half of the program comes full circle with a final flurry of incandescent playing courtesy of the Marcus Roberts Trio lead by critically-acclaimed modern composer and jazz icon Marcus Roberts. The trio closes the program with their own spin on Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, injected with musical improvisation, making it unique every time it’s performed. Marcus Roberts’ improvisational style, which began when he learned to play piano after losing his sight at the age of five, has led to ground-breaking contributions to jazz and the development of an entirely new approach to jazz trio performances.


Mei-Ann Chen said of the concert, “We’re excited to close our 2016-17 season with a performance of upbeat, exciting jazz works joined by the phenomenal Marcus Roberts Trio, and our assistant conductor, Deanna Tham. We’ve been wanting to present a jazz-focused concert and I can assure our audiences that this unique program, in which all of us will witness live improvisation at each performance, will be one of the most memorable. Chicago Sinfonietta has helped many young conductors further their professional careers – Deanna Tham, another young star in the making, will also be making her Chicago debut in the Overture to Joplin’s opera Treemonisha. Not only is this program a wonderful way to end a wonderful season, but the music is a great way to herald in our 30th Anniversary Season next year.”

Before the show and during intermission, audience members will have the opportunity to learn more about Chicago’s rich jazz history, make their own instrument and take their turn playing, improvising and scatting during a live jam session.


Title:                 Chicago Sinfonietta presents Rightness in the Rhythm


Dates:               Friday, May 12 at 8 p.m. at Wentz Concert Hall of North Central College

Monday, May 15 at 7:30 p.m. at Orchestra Hall of Symphony Center


Tickets:            Single tickets range from $18-$99 for concerts at Symphony Center, $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



JOPLIN Treemonisha featuring Guest Conductor Deanna Tham
ABELS Variations on Swing Low Sweet Chariot
GERSHWIN An American in Paris


On the Town: Three Dance Episodes

Rhapsody in Blue featuring Marcus Roberts Trio




Mei-Ann Chen, conductor

Deanna Tham, guest conductor


Marcus Roberts Trio, jazz trio

Featured Chicago Sinfonietta musicians: John Floeter, bass; Jeff Handley, drums; Matt Lee, trumpet

About Chicago Sinfonietta

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


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.


About Project Inclusion

Project Inclusion is Chicago Sinfonietta’s groundbreaking mentoring program for musicians and conductors of diverse backgrounds who are pursuing careers as professional classical musicians and music directors. It is designed to help eliminate the institutional bias that is a barrier to participation for many musicians due to factors such as ethnicity, race, and socio-economic status. According to a study conducted by the League of American Orchestras, Chicago Sinfonietta’s Project Inclusion Fellowship has served more fellows than any other program of its kind in the United States.  In just nine seasons, Project Inclusion has served 50 diverse, early career musicians and conductors, or about 42% of the total ever served by similar programs nationwide.


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