Review: Chicago Sinfonietta superbly explores freedom with oud concerto, rare Dawson symphony

Mei-Ann Chen
Chicago Sun-Times

By Andrew Patner

Audacious. Invigorating. Superbly executed.

As it continues a transitional period following the retirement of its founder and longtime music director Paul Freeman, the Chicago Sinfonietta under Freeman’s successor Mei-Ann Chen is playing at the top of its form in programs that are fascinating both on paper and in performance.

Friday evening at the Harris Theater in Millennium Park bore the title “Political Awakenings,” originally inspired by last year’s Arab Spring uprisings. Ideas of freedom ranging from Mozart’s comic opera about a Turkish harem, through individual expression for the ancient Arab lute, the oud, to a rare revival of the least-performed of the earliest African-American symphonies were interlinked as were the cross-cultural musical styles and values in the three works.

The idea of an oud concerto might strike some initially as forced, or funder-driven multiculturalism. But this is looking at the world upside down. Western concert music and particularly that played with plucked strings, flutes and several other instruments comes from other traditions. And in his 2008 C minor concerto, Palestinian Simon Shaheen combines his own breathtaking virtuosity on the instrument with a keen understanding of how such classic works as Joaquin Rodrigo’s “Aranjuez” guitar concerto are themselves moving with each breath back and forth between the Arab and European worlds and those places in between such as Spain.

The constant inventiveness of the half-hour work and Shaheen’s ability to present both the lyrical and slowly unfolding meditative side as well as the intense and highly rhythmic aspect of the solo player were remarkable. His orchestration was not mere soundtrack stuff either, and along with frequent young percussion partner and fellow Palestinian Tareq Rantisi, Shaheen had the Sinfonietta players fully engaged and cheering for him at performance’s end at least as heartily as the enthusiastic audience.

As she had with the opening overture to Mozart’s 1782 “Abduction from the Seraglio,” Chen was wholly attuned to the particular language, phrasing and sound of the work. Mozart’s incorporation of “Turkish” marching sounds and tambourines and Shaheen’s use of a full Western orchestra led up to the most complex piece of the night, the 1934 Negro Folk Symphony of William Levi Dawson (1899-1990). Born and raised in Alabama, Dawson eventually returned there and gained his greatest fame as director of the Tuskegee Choir at the Tuskegee Institute and as the leading arranger of negro spirituals. But as a young man he also studied classical music and played in jazz bands and symphony orchestras in Kansas City and Chicago, working with Felix Borowski at Chicago Musical College and taking courses at the American Conservatory of Music here while also paying principal trombone in the Civic Orchestra.

Commissioned by Leopold Stokowski for the Philadelphia Orchestra and championed by the conductor for decades, including in a revised version from 1952 where Dawson put more direct African influence into the piece, the symphony was one of a trio written by in the early 1930s by black composers Dawson, William Grant Still and Chicago’s Florence Price. (Chen has played Price’s music with the Sinfonietta and will lead the belated Chicago Symphony Orchestra premiere of her “Mississippi River Suite” next month.) For this work Chen balanced carefully, but not overly cautiously, the various sources that Dawson threaded together into this three-movement, 30-minute piece, seeking to fit spirituals both structurally and harmonically into late 19th and early 20th century European compositional ideas. This was one of the only live performances of this historic work I’m aware of, and it was captivating and held the audience’s ears throughout.

The program was repeated Saturday night at Wentz Concert Hall at North Central College in Naperville, and the group’s last concerts of the season will offer similarly varied works there on June 8 and at Orchestra Hall on June 9. The Dawson reminded, too, that as the Sinfonietta stretches into more and more realms of diversity it should not lose sight of its historic commitment to the contributions of African-American and Afro-European composers to the classical repertoire.