In closing out its 19th season, the Chicago Sinfonietta, led by music director Paul Freeman, turned the concept of going to "see" the symphony inside-out. For most of a mind-grabbing concert at Dominican University's Lund Auditorium on May 14, the Sinfonietta was nowhere to be seen. Instead, the rousing opener featured a rock combo drawn primarily from the orchestra's principals as the back-up for "DBR," an electric violinist. After a brief sighting of orchestra players scattered about the stage warming up, a translucent screen descended and the musicians receded into the shadows for The Planets, a tone poem by Gustav Holst.
Daniel Bernard Roumain's (DBR) "Voodoo Concerto No. 1" was indeed electric, and not simply because the violin and back-up ensemble were amplified (uncomfortably and unnecessarily loud for this reviewer's taste). This young violinist stirred up a stunning mix of Haitian folk idioms, improv Ó la Jimi Hendrix, and plaintive American hymns, peppered with his own vibrant musical imagination.
DBR's four-movement composition is a bona fide concerto in the best sense: there was plenty of room for the soloist's scintillating fireworks, in this case complete with percussive effects, stomping, and other-worldly, but highly-controlled, screeches from the bow. As for bow control, which string players are always aiming for, DBR at one point perched the bow skillfully between his teeth in order to free up both hands for slapping and tapping the fingerboard like the best of drummers.
DBR explored enough extremes of mood and arresting sounds for a lifetime?#34;this concerto was meant to be partly autobiographical, telling the story of a life lived beyond the edge without caution and restraint. His intense and sometimes near violent playing raised the question whether the fragile violin itself would weather more performances. But at least violins are replaceable, unlike imaginations, and one must hope that DBR's immensely inventive musical imagination will weather the taming of age.
With the orchestra out of view, there was more to see in the second half: a fascinating parade of images designed by gifted artist and astronomer Dr. JosÚ Francisco Salgado of the Adler Planetarium. Like DBR, Salgado explores artistic expression in uncharted territory. The medium for his imagination was a silent film sequence of inspired, highly communicative images from historical documents and current research related to each planet.
Trained as a scientist, Salgado revealed an acute musical sensitivity and keen eye for pacing and editing that matched Holst's music seamlessly. His work was so effective as to arouse reverence?#34;for his artistic eye and for the magnificence of the planets themselves. Having the orchestra mysteriously out of view, but still playing impeccably and precisely, only increased the mysterious aura of an unexplored universe.
One can draw an obvious connection between Debussy, Holst, and the mesmerizing effect of Asian music, which is so apparent in The Planets, but the images were so captivating that I had to keep reminding myself to notice the orchestra's especially lush and warm sound in near-Debussy-like passages from Holst.
Salgado ingeniously provided footage from NASA animations of robots exploring Mars, while the incessant snare drum, carefully executed, backed up Holst's driving and alarming ostinati in "Mars, the Bringer of War." Effortless and graceful solos from principal horn and violin were accompanied by classical images of the goddess Venus, "Bringer of Peace."
Whirling red-orange landscapes depicted "Mercury, the Winged Messenger" as the orchestra took on Holst's playful Scherzo with quick fingering in the fancy melodic figures. Notably wonderful playing on the celeste further developed the sense of the haunting stillness of extra-terrestrial terrain.
In "Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity," with cellos warmly introducing the expansive, hymn-like melody, a chartreuse and pock-marked planet rose larger and larger before our eyes. Jupiter's Great Red Spot was paired perfectly with the brass fanfares, played brilliantly and cleanly.
The voyage continued to Saturn, the icy "Bringer of Old Age," with the orchestra's long and well-balanced crescendo against the familiar rings in cool colors. As we heard the bassoon mimicking a sorcerer in Uranus, "The Magician," we saw news of the discovery of its first moons by William Herschel in 1787. Neptune, "The Mystic," closed out the concert with a patiently long and lingering diminuendo, as the sounds and sights disappeared to the outer extremes of uncertainty.
The real test of extremes at this concert was proven by the children sitting in front of me. Yes, compliments to the Sinfonietta for attracting a lot of children to this event. These two sat still, spellbound like the rest of us throughout the amazing two-hour trip.