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Women composers, global beats and more in Sinfonietta’s 30th season

Conductor Mei-Ann Chen leads the Chicago Sinfonietta through a contemporary piece during their 30th anniversary season, Wednesday, September 13, 2017, in Naperville, Illinois. (Jon Langham/for the Sun-Times)

The best way to understand what sets the Chicago Sinfonietta apart — and how it’s thrived since Paul Freeman founded it in 1987 — is to scan the eclectic programming for its 30th anniversary season, which was to have its first performance at Wentz Concert Hall of North Central College in Naperville on Saturday. The Sinfonietta kicks off its downtown season on Monday at Symphony Center.

Its five concerts will feature Hispanic, gospel, Caribbean, jazz, tango and Middle Eastern sounds, along with works by Mozart, Prokofiev and Grieg, all embellished with the use of film, dance, spoken word and guest artists.

Chicago Sinfonietta
When: 7:30 p.m. Sept. 18
Where: Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan
Tickets: $20-$99
Info: (312) 284-1554;

The orchestra’s first program, under the umbrella title “Trademark,” will (quite literally) start with a bang, as it celebrates Caribbean sounds by way of the 16-piece Northern Illinois University Steelband led by Liam Teague.

It also will bring Chicago’s Cerqua Rivera Dance Theatre to the stage and feature world-premiere works by women composers (Jessie Montgomery, Reena Ismail and Clarice Assad), plus a Chicago premiere by Grammy Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning Jennifer Higdon that will initiate the orchestra’s yearlong “Project W: Commissions by Women Composers.”

Project W was created in response to the lack of women composers featured on classical programs across the country. It involves the commissioning and performing of new works. Also, Cedille Records will record and distribute pieces by four women, as well as “Dances in the Canebrakes,” a work by Florence Price (1887-1953), the first African-America woman to have a composition played by a major orchestra. (The album will be available in the fall of 2018.)

There is far more at work here than even this list suggests. That’s because Mei-Ann Chen, music director of the orchestra since 2011 (when, as Chen put it, Freeman, who died in 2015 and was African-American, “literally handed me his baton”), is a master of cultural and stylistic layering.

Conductor Mei-Ann Chen leads the Chicago Sinfonietta through a contemporary piece during rehearsals on Wednesday, September 13, 2017, in Naperville, Illinois. (Jon Langham/for the Sun-Times)

So, after opening the program with the world premiere of “Coincident Dances” by emerging composer and violinist Montgomery, the concert will continue with Mozart’s “Rondo alla Turca” as reinvented by the Steelband. And that band will then join the Sinfonietta’s principal harpist, Faye Seeman, on her solo composition, “Fayed to Blue,” before switching to the Caribbean sounds of Lord Kitchener’s upbeat, Calypso-infused “Pan in A-minor.”

The concert’s second half will begin with the world premiere of Grammy-nominated composer Clarice Assad’s “Sin Fronteras” (“Without Borders”), featuring the Cerqua Rivera troupe in a work commissioned by the orchestra.

Things draw to a close with excerpts from a classic: Smetana’s “Má vlast” (“My homeland”), the Czech composer’s symphonic poem.

This is a typical Sinfonietta lineup, if a decidedly atypical one for standard symphony orchestras.

And Chen — who was born in Taiwan in 1973, arrived in the United States in 1989 and became the first student in the history of the New England Conservatory to receive master’s degrees simultaneously in violin and conducting — clearly relishes this distinction. Speaking with the exuberance and speed a musician might mark “presto,” Chen proudly says “the Sinfonietta is the nation’s most diverse symphony orchestra” — it’s ranked No. 2 in the country for presenting female composers — “and attracts a similarly diverse audience.”

This diversity in personnel and repertoire, along with the orchestra’s extensive program of mentoring and education in the Chicago Public Schools, helped it win a 2015 MacArthur Foundation Award for Creative & Effective Institutions.

With a permanent roster of about 60 to 70 musicians (a pool of freelancers who also play with the Grant Park Symphony Orchestra, the Elgin Symphony and others), the orchestra also has a list of specialists. So, as Chen notes, “when, for example, we need a banjo player or an electronic keyboardist, we know who to contact.”

The Sinfonietta performs five “pairs” of concerts each season, with one performance at Symphony Center and another at its suburban home in Naperville. (Next year’s annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Tribute Concert will be at Pfeiffer Hall of North Central College rather than at Wentz.)

“The diversity of our programming and other activities — everything from beer tastings to the ability to try out some of the unusual instruments being played — also changes the nature of our audiences,” Chen says. “We are really bucking the symphony orchestra trend and attracting younger audiences to our concerts.”

Conductor Mei-Ann Chen poses with “Sin Fronteras” composer Clarice Assad and Chicago Sinfonietta CEO Jim Hirsch in the lobby of Wentz Concert Hall on September 13, 2017, in Naperville, Illinois. (Jon Langham/for the Sun-Times)