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SINFONIETTA - Chicago Sinfonietta/Guzman/Achucarrow (Chgo Sun-Times, 11-1-10)

Chicago Sun-Times review of the Chicago Sinfonietta's Day of the Dead concert at the Harris Theater, October 30, 2010

Below is my full review.

A shorter, edited-for-space version is available in today's paper and for a month or so on the Sun-Times website.

Lively 'Day of the Dead'


Sinfonietta concert a celebration of cultures

November 1, 2010


Saturday's "Day of the Dead" (Dia de los Muertos) celebration in Harris Theater became a night of the very-much-alive, the Chicago Sinfonietta reveling in Mexican folk rhythms, brooding tangos, gypsy-tinged Spanish vistas, and a Witches Sabbath tossed in for good measure. This was Halloween eve, too, after all.

The Sinfonietta describes itself, in part, as serving "as a cultural crossroads, featuring talented soloists, composers and musicians of color." Successful as their unification of races and ethnicities is, both on stage and in the audience, as a cohesive musical force, they also transcend all such concerns. Simply put, they are an exceptional orchestra. Music Director Designate Mei-Ann Chen will take over an excellent ensemble next season, as Paul Freeman hands over the orchestra he founded in 1987 with an eye toward racial inclusion and an ear tuned to soaring musical values.

A couple of old school warhorses anchored the first half. From the swirling start, Modest Mussorgsky's "A Night on Bald Mountain"--inspired by the aforementioned witches' shindig--established the ensemble's blended sound, built from the bottom up, double basses laying a plump foundation for a string section both precise and richly expressive. Mexican guest conductor Hector Guzman is also a prize-winning organist, like another famous Bald Mountain-climbing maestro of a bygone era, Leopold Stokowski, and if Guzman's reading was less flamboyant than the old wizard's, his ability to draw a range of colors from the flexible ensemble points to the organ loft as a natural incubator for baton wielders.

Manuel de Falla's three-movement "Nights in the Garden of Spain" is a trio of evocative nocturnes containing elements of a concerto crossed with a sprawling tone poem requiring a virtuoso pianist at the center. Joaquin Achucarro has played the piece longer than many of the orchestra's members have been living, including a performance at the Ravinia Festival in 1968 with the Chicago Symphony under Seiji Ozawa. Making it seem effortless, his tone was most affecting in the work's quietest passages, achieving a delicate clarity, while Achuccaro's obvious joy seemed infectious, Guzman and the players responding with enthusiastic support. Achuccarro's encore, Scriabin's Nocturne for the Left Hand in D-flat Major, was greeted with a roar of approval as loud as his interpretation was gentle, drawing on the miniature's Chopinesque colors.

Eugenio Toussaint's "Popul-Vuh" opened the second half and was the evening's high point. Toussaint, 56 and a native of Mexico, has been an established jazz pianist and bandleader since the 1970s and, as Guzman said from the stage, has come relatively recently to compose in the classical vein, and the conductor's delight at the result was justified.

Inspired by Mayan mythology, "Popol-Vuh" is a concise concerto for orchestra in a single-movement that opens with pulsing percussion before handing the rhythmic germ first to the strings, evoking the open spaces of Roy Harris and the unanswered questions of Charles Ives before shifting into something akin to Bernstein's West Side Story dances, the syncopated percussion loping beneath the strings while the brass sings above it all. By the end, first chair players, from concertmaster Paul Zafer's violin through the woodwinds, brass, harp, pizzicato strings, and back to the percussion, had their moments to shine, and brightly. Though the rhythm maintained a steady 6/8 pulse, the shifting accents and emphases kept the dialogue between the sections arresting.

Of the remaining works, the popular "Danzon No. 2" of Arturo Marquez, and Jose Pablo Moncayo's "Huapango," have been heard plenty in these parts in recent days, by both the Grant Park and Chicago Symphony Orchestras. Each received fine performances, but Astor Piazzolla's Oblivion was a brief but welcome lull in an otherwise high-voltage night. The Argentinean's memorial tribute to his father, which exists in a variety of settings, from chamber music and solo piano to Saturday's full-size orchestral jacket, might work best in its more intimate dress. That being said, Guzman and the Sinfonietta made no attempt to exaggerate the tango's pathos in a piece best delivered, as it was on this night, with hushed dignity.

David Royko is a local free-lance writer.

[Photos (not included here): Conductor Hector Guzman (left) led the Chicago Sinfonietta in a "Day of the Dead" concert, featuring pianist Joaquin Achucarro.]

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