Chicago Sinfonietta’s World Premiere of West Side Story Concerto Review – Passion, Tragedy and Love

acclaim-6635The Chicago Sinfonietta’s final concert of the 2011-2012 season, titled Passion. Tragedy. Love., led by Music Director Mei-Ann Chen, continued to offer diversity in both musicians and musical styles with contemporary works, unique guest performers and a brand new orchestral arrangement of Leonard Bernstein’s iconic musical West Side Story. The Chicago Sinfonietta presented Passion. Tragedy. Love. at the Wentz Concert Hall of North Central College in Naperville on Saturday, June 16 and at Orchestra Hall of Symphony Center in downtown Chicago on Monday, June 18.

The Passion. Tragedy. Love. concert opened with excerpts of Felix Mendelsohn’s romantic A Midsummer Night’s Dream, inspired by Shakespeare’s famous comedy and incorporating elements of the original text. Naperville Mayor George Pradel joined the orchestra as the narrator for the North Central College performance and CBS 2 Chicago News anchor Bill Kurtis narrateed the Symphony Center performance.

Praised for their dynamic performances that infuse classical music with a fresh, youthful energy, the esteemed musicians of the Harlem Quartet returned to the Sinfonietta for Michael Abels’ Delights and Dances. Commissioned by the Sphinx Organization and premiered by the Harlem Quartet in 2007, it celebrates African-American and Latino culture. Abels’ score for string quartet and orchestra blends the sound of jazz, blues and Latin dance into a contemporary and spirited whole. The Quartet continued with the orchestra for Benjamin Lees’ Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra, which uniquely combines the orchestral concerto with the string quartet medium.

The concert, and the season, concluded with a world premiere arrangement for string quartet and orchestra by Randall Fleischer of Bernstein’s West Side Story. “West Side Story is an utter masterpiece and, for me, the crowning achievement in American musical theater,” said Fleischer. “Lush and romantic in the love duets, edgy, vigorous, even violent in the gang scenes, this brilliant show encompasses almost the entire range of the human experience within one evening.

The audience loved this grand finale in which strains of “Maria” provided a motif throughout the work. “Tonight” was truly beautiful and I felt like I was hearing the best of the Boston Pops as the music swelled and filled Symphony Center. Of course “Play it Cool Boy” held the audience on edge with the rhythmical finger snapping heightened by the rhythms of the orchestra. “I Like to be in America” was energetic and the tragedy of young love was poignantly felt as the piece ended with a few musical lines from “Somewhere”. The audience gave a standing ovation as the performers took multiple bows.

The Harlem Quartet is an ensemble with the mission to engage young and new audiences and to advance diversity in classical music. Other performance highlights include the legendary Apollo Theater, the White House, the U.S. Ambassador’s residence in London, and an appearance on the Today Show. The ensemble released their professional debut CD, Take the ‘A’ Train, with the White Pine Music label in 2007.

The Chicago Sinfonietta has a proud history of having enriched the cultural, educational, and social quality of life in Chicago, while gaining significant recognition on the national and international stage. Performing in both downtown Chicago and in west suburban Naperville, the Sinfonietta presents a full season of symphonic concerts. The Chicago Sinfonietta musicians truly represent the city’s rich cultural landscape and continues to fulfill the orchestra’s mission of Musical Excellence through Diversity™.

Mei-Ann Chen, in her first year as Music Director of the Chicago Sinfonietta brings a freshness and opportunities to interact with the audience as she turns from her podium to invite the audience to participate by snapping their fingers during West Side Story and sing out “Mambo” to the Latin strains of music. She is able to tear down the barriers between the orchestra and audience and one feels a part of the show. Her energy and warmth as she both leads the orchestra and then speaks to the audience provides a warm, welcoming atmosphere.


— Sandra Schwartz, Splash Magazine