Sunday, May 11, 2008

Concert Review: Chicago Sinfonietta at Dominican University

I am feeling very sorry for a sizable batch of excellent musicians who perform with the Chicago Sinfonietta. I just attended their final concert of the season at Dominican University and it was, with the exception of one piece, dreadful. As a professional musician myself I know how it must feel to have to suffer through a concert as awful as this was.

I arrived too late to be seated for the first number, Beethoven's workhorse Egmont Overture, but I did hear it fairly clearly in the hallway. If I hadn't sat through the remainder of the concert I wouldn't even comment on this particular performance. But since I did witness the rest of this aural debacle I can tell you that the orchestra played every note of the piece just fine... and completely devoid of personality.

For this absence of emotional content I must blame their hapless music director, Paul Freeman. If this man ever had any sense of style or passion for music it was not in evidence this afternoon. I've never heard Beethoven sound so dimensionless. But let's leave this composition alone, since there is so much more to complain about elsewhere on the program.

The next piece, Three Songs For Bluesman and Orchestra, was commissioned by the Sinfonietta. I really hope they didn't pay much for it. The composer is a blues enthusiast (judging from his primary career as a record producer and liner note writer) named Larry Hoffman. Mr. Hoffman composes as if he has not actually heard a symphony orchestra play before. Nor is he apparently aware of the work of any of the so-called Third Stream composers, not to mention the far more sophisticated and successful writing of Duke Ellington. The soloist, blues singer/guitarist John Primer, bravely and affably sang and twanged his way through the muddy waters of this composition. It was a little difficult to tell what Mr. Primer was playing because his acoustic guitars were so poorly amplified in the house P.A. The buzz coming from the speakers was much louder than his instruments, which added an extra dimension of amateurishness to the proceedings.

Relief was finally provided in the form of an electrifying performance from pianist Leon Bates, soloist for George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. Mr. Bates grabbed this piece by the throat and never let go. This was the only piece on the program that seemed to rouse the orchestra from its doldrums, despite the somnambulistic baton waving of Mr. Freeman. I only wish that there was more to this music, both compositionally and in duration. I wanted to hear more from Mr. Bates.

The second half of the concert was taken up by a high concept version of the venerable Pictures at an Exhibition. For this performance, the orchestra was situated behind a huge white screen, upon which were projected video images created by astronomer/graphic designer Jose Francisco Salgado. Although some of the individual images were strikingly beautiful, it was unclear to me how the video component was supposed to relate to Mussorgsky's music. The fact that the coordination between the orchestra and the projections came unglued several times didn't help; neither did the framing (pardon the pun) of the video imaging as a "virtual gallery". That concept seemed awfully contrived.

When the piece ended (out of synch with the video, of course) there was a long confused moment in the hall. While the audience dutifully applauded, the screen remained in position, giving new meaning to the term "curtain call". Either someone missed a cue or the screen was stuck. Finally the stage manager ushered Mr. Salgado, the maestro and the very uncomfortable looking concertmaster (who happens to be a colleague of mine) onto the stage. By that time half the audience was heading for the exits, the whole episode having provided a fittingly awkward conclusion to an ill executed multimedia extravaganza.

I wonder what this orchestra would sound like with a conductor who would inspire these musicians to actually play music?