I.D. Images of Diversity Review: The Chicago Sinfonietta and Steep Theatre at Symphony Center

A visual from "Ellis Island"
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On September 22, 2018 at Wentz Concert Hall, Naperville and on September 24, 2018 at Symphony Center, Chicago, the Chicago Sinfonietta, conducted by the dynamic Mei-Ann Chen, presented I.D. Images of Diversity, tackling the question “What does it mean to be American?” by exploring the perspectives of 5 different composers. As always, the program was exceptionally astutely curated, beautifully rendered and intriguing. The power and joy of the Conductor was thrilling to behold, in full and adroit control of the Orchestra.

Maestra Mei-Ann Chen


– Giuseppe Verdi Overture to Nabucco, 1841

Nabucco is an opera that follows the plight of the Jewish people as they are attacked, conquered and subsequently banished from their homeland by King Nebuchadnezzar of the Babylonians.

The overture is often played alone and is essentially comprised of themes from the opera. The music consists of intense and energetic rhythms interspersed with more lyrical moments. The Sinfonietta delivered, in particular, a highly expressive string section in this stirring piece.

 – Aaron Copland Variations on a Shaker Melody, 1944

Copland was awarded the 1945 Pulitzer Prize in Music for Appalachian Spring, which has achieved and maintained great popularity as a suite for orchestra.

The original ballet version is divided into 14 movements, between the 7th and last movement as variations on the Shaker melody Simple Gifts (1848). These variations range from melodic and slow to swift and staccato; the final 2 only partly refer back to the original folk tune.

– Arturo Marquez Danzón No. 2, 1994

Danzón No. 2 is one of the most popular and most frequently performed orchestral Mexican contemporary classical Mexican compositions; it has also gained great regard worldwide.

Produced by the full Sinfonietta, the piece featured outstanding solos by clarinet, oboe, piano, violin, trumpet, flute, and piccolo. Varying accents and tempi support a strong rhythmic base, as the piece flirts with interpretations of the Veracruzan dance style for which it is named, which originated in Cuba.

The Chicago Sinfonietta presents “I.D. Images of Diversity”

– James P. Johnson “Drums” – A Symphonic Poem, 1942

Johnson was one of the greatest jazz piano players and composers in history, famous for being a proponent of “stride,” a virtuoso style of music that succeeded ragtime, with a more rapid tempo, and more reflective.

The most musically irresistible orchestral work on this evening’s program was Johnson’s symphonic poem Drums, with its unique emphasis on jazz based upon African drumming. The Sinfonietta balanced advanced harmonies, quasi-pop melodies and advanced rhythms with brass and winds dominating the strings.

– Peter Boyer Ellis Island: The Dream of America, 2001-02

Boyer’s “ambitious” work is a celebration of the iconic/historic American immigrant experience juxtaposed with the notion of “the American dream”.

The piece combines a powerfully authentic score with compelling video and immediate naturalistic theatre and brought a multimedia aspect into Orchestra Hall, employing actors from Steep Theatre along with projected historical images from the Ellis Island archives. The music itself is distinctly American, brave, resonant, filled with brass and uplifting fanfares. Maestra Chen handled the transitions between the music and the spoken word deftly and subtly, while the Sinfonietta skillfully negotiated the vibrant orchestration.

The spoken texts read/expressed by the Steep company and associates are from the Ellis Island Oral History Project, a collection of interviews with actual immigrants about their experiences coming to America. Boyer selected seven sagas of persons who immigrated to America through Ellis Island from disparate nations between 1910-1940, crafting monologues from their actual words, weaving them into an orchestral mélange that crafts a setting with commentary.

The Steep actors portrayed these stories with wit, sensitivity, and a pervasive verisimilitude that was moving in the extreme. The work’s finale is a reading of the Emma Lazarus poem The New Colossus which most people will recognize as containing the inscription on the Statue of Liberty; “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”. The combination of art forms, the real words of real people spoken amid the absorbing visuals and inspiring music was a most poignant statement in this fraught political era, where the eyes of the world are watching how the United States deals with the people trying to arrive at its doorstep and find a new home.

Composer Peter Boyer


This reviewer had the opportunity to interview Kate Piatt Eckert, Executive Director, Steep Theatre, on the eve of this memorable concert. Her thoughtful and provocative words are as follows:

 Debra Davy: “How do the Chicago Sinfonietta’s watchwords ‘Innovative Diverse Inclusive’ dovetail with the mission of Steep Theatre, ‘To produce new and under-produced plays that tell the stories of ordinary people in extraordinary situations?’”

Kate Piatt Eckert: “We think that this marriage of music, video, history, and spoken narrative evoking this moment in history is an exciting, innovative way to present these people’s extraordinary stories. Bringing stories like these to life is just a part of Steep’s mission – we also strive to incite and support hard conversations about the world today and bring new people into these conversations by telling stories that are relevant to them. With this performance, Steep will be bringing new, diverse voices to this conversation, opening up the piece, and in turn, we hope, opening our conversations up to a wide array of new perspectives and new audiences.”

 Debra: “Can you describe the genesis and scope of the upcoming collaboration between Steep and Chicago Sinfonietta for the I.D.: Images of Diversity concerts on September 22 and 24?”

Kate: “Jim Hirsch, Chicago Sinfonietta’s CEO, is a long-time audience member at Steep, and he initially contacted us to discuss the logistics of incorporating actors into symphonic performance. Out of this initial conversation, a collaboration grew where Steep Ensemble Member George Cederquist would direct a cast of actors costumed by Izumi Inaba, whose work can also be seen in Steep’s upcoming production of Zürich by Amelia Roper. The cast features two Steep Ensemble Members, Lucy Carapetyan and Patricia Donegan, as well as several actors who have recently been seen on Steep’s stage in Linda, The Invisible Hand, Lela & Co., and Earthquakes in London. Steep’s ensemble-based style of theatre-making is based on the shared artistic language and trust that develops over multiple collaborations, and this is an opportunity to bring that ensemble experience to a new style of performance.”

Debra: “What are the challenges for Steep ensemble members and guest artists preparing to present Boyer’s Ellis Island: The Dream of America?”

 Kate: “One of the interesting differences between this type of performance and the theatrical production for which Steep is known is about timing. Typically, in a play, the rhythm and timing in a piece of text is developed during rehearsal through collaboration with the actors and director. That rhythm is then somewhat fluid within each scene or moment as actors respond to each other and the audience. In this performance, the timing of the text is precisely coordinated with the music, with no room for flexibility, creating an exciting opportunity to explore a slightly different style of acting.”

Steep Theatre Executive Director Kate Piatt Eckert; photo by Ted Lovitz

For information and tickets to all the great programming of the Chicago Sinfonietta, go to www.chicagosinfonietta.org

Unless otherwise noted, all photos courtesy of The Chicago Sinfonietta







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