The Chicago Sinfonietta kicked off its 25th anniversary year Thursday evening at Symphony Center by looking back at its inaugural season (1987-88). To celebrate Paul Freeman’s founding of a culturally diverse professional orchestra, guest conductor Harvey Felder assembled a program of pieces as ambitious today as they no doubt were when the Sinfonietta first performed them in that opening year.
Reflecting its original size, the chamber-sized orchestra opened the concert with the jubilant overture from Mozart’s Ballettmusik zur Pantomime. The program took an innovative turn with Alberto Ginastera’s Variaciones Concertantes, a set of twelve variations that are passed through every section of the orchestra. Principal cellist Ann Griffin and harpist Faye Seeman began the piece with an eloquent and ever-ascending duet; the variations that followed featured spirited woodwinds, galloping brass, and soulful turns from principal violist Renée Baker and principal bassist John Floeter.
In a more subdued mood, Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915 followed, a song set to excerpts from James Agee’s short story, Knoxville. Sarah Hibbard supplied the soprano, her warm voice and sharp diction supported by gauzy playing of the lush orchestration. Barber’s writing is typically visual, augmented by Agee’s vivid scenes of the American South. Hibbard received a strong ovation for her sensitive singing.
Addressing the audience after intermission, Felder discussed the beginning of his career in the context of the Sinfonietta’s founding. Though he wouldn’t make his debut with the Sinfonietta until 2010, Felder was aware of Freeman’s success in Chicago during those early days. He alluded to the obstacles facing an African American conductor pursuing a career in the white-dominated world of professional orchestras. As a tribute to Freeman, Felder offered Antifonys for Chamber Orchestra by George Walker—the first African American composer to win the Pulitzer Prize.
As the title suggests, Antifonys is a tricky piece—described by Felder as five people locked in an endless argument—full of antagonistic fragments and percussive bursts from all sections of the orchestra. The Sinfonietta performed the work with particular gusto.
Beethoven’s rollicking Eighth Symphony closed the program, and the Sinfonietta’s overflowing charisma made the previous four works seem like warm-ups. The ensemble attained a higher level of cohesion and buoyancy, changing moods as quickly as Beethoven and Felder demanded. Felder looked like he was having the time of his life, frequently flashing a wide smile to the orchestra, which, in turn, showed that nothing is as fun as performing Beethoven.
As the Sinfonietta looks forward to an exciting 2012-2013 season, it remains true to its mission, not the least of which is proving the relevance of underperformed music while giving fresh treatment to repertoire favorites.