by guest blogger Ruthie Freeman (no relation to Paul Freeman, mentioned in the article!)
There were really two ways the Chicago Sinfonietta could go with Laughter. Somehow, draw on the humor of classical music itself, or, use it as a backdrop for the naturally charming Maestro Michael Morgan. Wisely, the Sinfonietta did both: its lighthearted collaboration gave an opportunity to showcase musical composers’ giddier moods and an example of showbiz professionals demonstrating their verve. Part of the Chicago Humanities Festival’s exploration of the theme laughter, the Sinfonietta’s November 2nd audience was lucky enough to experience the one night only performance.
It’s easy to wonder what role an orchestra can play in a festival devoted to levity, but the answer lies within the Sinfonietta itself.
Founder and musical director Paul Freeman began the Chicago Sinfonietta twenty three years ago in response to the dearth of opportunity for classical musicians of color. In 1987, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra was all male and all white. Talented and top-notch of course, but a bunch of white guys nonetheless. Even now, less than 3% of musicians in the top 1,000 orchestras are people of color.
Approximately half of the Sinfonietta’s staff, musicians, Board of Directors, and audience are people of color. The orchestra is also gender-balanced, believing truly in “excellence through diversity.” Whatever it is that people typically think of classical music, Paul Freeman has certainly begun to change it. An orchestra with the spark and tenacity to break down institutional barriers most definitely does not shy from pushing the boundaries of what its music is really about.
The evening began with a note on the first piece, Divertissement by Jacques Ibert. Guest conductor Michael Morgan compared the piece to the familiar Looney Tunes soundtrack. Morgan clearly embraced popular culture alongside the more arcane. Any highly trained and more than accomplished conductor so readily able to acknowledge that Bugs Bunny might just be more accessible to his audience than the music for Un Chapeau de paille d’Italie (The Italian Straw Hat), can only be said to have a decent sense of humor. Morgan discussed Looney Tunes composer Carl Stalling, saying that like the wascally wabbit and his friends, Jacques Ibert’s contribution to the evening would provide symphony-goers with a “wonderful bit of fluff.” Sure enough, it was not hard to imagine a sprightly cartoon character strolling through some meadow or village, especially once the orchestra trotted out a whistle.
The next selection was Dead Elvis by Michael Daugherty, playing on a 1918 composition by Stravinsky. Inspired by the eponymous Elvis Presley, this piece recalls Elvis’s estimable career, sounding at times not unlike a drunken ramble through Graceland by the King himself.
Guest bassoonist Lewis Kirk joined the Sinfonietta on stage in full Elvis costume, an idea he attributed to Morgan, who clearly appreciates a good show. Kirk’s playfulness was apparent; despite exact musicianship, he still could not resist a little hamming, going down on one knee a la rock-and-roll. Most amusing about this piece is that it was in fact living proof of Oscar Wilde’s comment that “life imitates art far more than art imitates life”.
If the lobby of Orchestra Hall was any indication, this may have been one of few chances in Mr. Kirk’s laudable career as concert bassoonist to be, indeed, a rock god. His students from Northwestern eager to get their pictures taken with Professor Kirk-cum-Elvis Presley, any whimsy on the part of the orchestra was eclipsed by Mr. Kirk’s sincerity as a jukebox hero.
The third performance, Le Boeuf sur le Toit (The Ox on the Roof), was the music from a ballet revolving around what must be an interesting bunch to watch. Not unlike the Chalmun’s Cantina in Star Wars, this merry band of miscreants includes a dwarf, cross dresser, boxer, and man decapitated by a ceiling fan but who is thankfully later revived.
This is French, after all. As Morgan pointed out, what else from a land of universal healthcare?
The story itself sounds quite funny, but without the ballet dancers some of the humor was lost. The music, with its Brazilian influences, did not disappoint, though it was more like rather pleasant easy-listening than out-and-out hilarity. Still, it was not hard to see why it was included in the evening’s lineup.
Finally, the Sinfonietta ended on a typical note. Felix Mendelssohn’s highly recognizable Symphony No. 4 was inspired by his journey through Italy in 1831. Lovely and sweet, this too was less funny as simply enjoyable. Both musicians and audience seemed to appreciate this piece for its relaxation and refinement. Again, Maestro Morgan’s wit delighted the audience saying that while it wasn’t necessarily chosen for laughs, Mendelssohn’s composition was still enough to make the audience “smile broadly.”
One got the impression that Morgan jumped at the chance to enliven a performance with laughter.
Perhaps there are conductors who would like to simply stick with the classics, but that’s not how the Chicago Sinfonietta sees music. Like its audience, the Sinfonietta knows that all the world is a stage – and everyone players.