At first glance, Monday night's program for the Chicago Sinfonietta concert at Symphony Center looked as if conductor Paul Freeman's "something-for-everyone" policy had gone amok. How else to explain the inclusion of Mendelssohn's Fourth Symphony alongside works written by and associated with three prominent African-American musicians from the 20th Century?
Yet, a closer scrutiny reveals that it might not have been far-fetched to lump together music of a lyrical bent that didn't break new ground but elaborated or even improved on existing forms. Mendelssohn, in his symphonies, paid heed to the classical style of Mozart and Beethoven just as much as George Walker and Hale Smith followed the examples of European-influenced modernists and jazzman Charlie Parker honored Tin Pan Alley tunesmiths by playing the alto sax in arrangements of their popular hits.
Juxtaposing jazz and classical music has become a trademark for the Sinfonietta, an organization that insists on diversity in its roster and repertoire. Still, it was unusual even for it to feature three black composers in one programalbeit composers who, though divergent in their career paths, are now regarded as exemplars of the African diaspora.
Parker played in bars and clubs and died young, while his near-contemporaries Walker and Smith went the establishment route and ended up with long tenures in academia. The irony, of course, is that Bird's legacy has had the more profound impact on American music and culture.
Just how much could be sensed in the Sinfonietta's performances of five selections from the "Charlie Parker With Strings" recordings made between 1947 and '52. Or, more accurately, in the buoyant playing of veteran saxist Phil Woods that uncannily resembled the original in subtle grace and feel of freedom.
The glossy pizzicato-laden orchestral backdropssome by Joe Lipman and others by Jimmy Carrollsounded awfully like Muzak, even though the Sinfonietta painted them with gusto. When the quartet led by Woods performed "Body and Soul" alone, they managed to reclaim Parker's bop essence.
Walker's 1945 Lyric for Strings suffers from a "by-the-numbers" simplicity; the strings enter stately, section by section, then swell into euphony. Like its model, Barber's Adagio for Strings, it exudes a sweetness tempered by regret and ends in calm acceptance. Freeman guided his players through the various shadings carefully and brought forth the poignancy.
Smith's Ritual and Incantation, a 1974 work championed by Freeman over the years, couldn't have been more different in mood. It's raucous and ecstatic, moving from primordial brass wails to string buzzes to percussive whacks. Its percussion-heavy soundscape brings to mind Stravinsky, Hindemith and Lukas Foss. But its wild streak and raw power also hark to Smith's experience as a jazz pianist collaborating with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie.
Freeman worked up a sweat getting a rousing, skillful performance out of the orchestra. The same zeal could have enhanced their reading of Mendelssohn's symphony, which turned out to be tepid except for the vibrant finale. It was back in full force for the encore, Gliere's "Russian Sailors' Dance." The band becomingly whooped up the boozy delirium.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun