The Chicago Sinfonietta wrapped up its 2016 season Monday night with a heartfelt homage to its founder and shaper, Paul Freeman, who died this past summer. Freeman was a beloved leader and a long time conductor (24 years) who was well known for his passion for music and music education and his efforts to make classical music an inclusive space for all races and classes.
The first half of the evening, however, was focused on Cosmic Convergence, a long standing collaboration that was originally started by Freeman and Dr. Jose Francisco Salgado, an astronomer and visual artist from the Adler Planetarium. The musical selections, led by the powerhouse conducting of Mei-Ann Chen (who recently extended her contract for two more years with the sinfonietta) began with the work of Gustav Holst, an English composer who wrote The Planets, a seven-movement orchestral suite with each movement being about a planet. The sometimes lilting sometimes booming movement was accompanied by dramatic visuals, provided by Dr. Salgado, who explained early on that there would be no science fiction since every visual was based in science research. Since his early collaboration with Freeman, Dr. Salgado has formed KV 265, a nonprofit organization that teaches kids art with science and science with art.
It was followed by the contemporary piece Borealis by John Estacio, with stunning time lapse photography of the northern lights provided by Dr. Salgado. The music captured the mysterious and haunting presence of green swirls of light in the sky with airy violins and harps building up to joyous bursts of sound from the entire orchestra as the rainbow of colors in the aurora borealis revealed themselves.
For Symphonie Fantastique, Opus 14, by Hector Berlioz, we were treated to a tour around the world from the perspective of the International Space Station. This was followed by the Planets, Mars Bringer of War by Gustav Holst, accompanied by the evolution of the human concept of Mars from early drawings (dating from observations in 1603) to actual photos and footage of the Mars rover showing surface patterns formed by dust devils and signs of water.
After the intermission the sinfonietta continued its homage and season finale without visuals, which was fine by me, since I was no longer compelled to look at fascinating scientific progress, but instead simply entertained by the vigorous and joyous conducting of Mei-Ann Cheng. She paused in her complex gesticulations to wax poetic about her former mentor Paul Freeman. Then she launched right in to it with four more pieces, two of which were composed by Micheal Abels, who was present in the audience to see his work performed. First came the moving composition Global Warming, a piece which at first blush seemed to exemplify nature with abstract notions that eventually evolved in to soft undertones, revealing the hint of a jig from a piccolo. As it progressed, tambourines and woodwinds built up Renaissance melodies with slight Arabic tones weaving in and out. The overall effect was that of frolicking folk music and the powerful influence of culture upon its people. Abels describes the inspiration for his piece as music about the warming of different cultures towards one another rather than as a scientific heating up of planetary temperature averages.
Abels also composed the final piece, Victory Road, a biographical creation about Freeman’s life and a world premiere. The many influences and events in Freeman’s life were impeccably converted to music, powerful beats and alluring melodies performed with passion by the group of musicians who knew Freeman best and vow to carry on his legacy.