Out of the Box: The Chicago Sinfonietta

Feb 14, 2020

Through its "Project W," one of the most forward-looking classical music organizations in the country plays works by diverse women composers.

WHAT: Chicago Sinfonietta & Mei-Ann Chen: Project W - Works by Diverse Women Composers and the African Heritage Symphonic Series, Vol. 1.

WHY THIS ALBUM: Well firstly, it's wonderfully played, good music. Enough said. But secondly, these albums (and indeed most of the Sinfonietta's sixteen albums) are a great way to expand the composers and music in your pallete. If you find yourself wondering, "I want to know more about more diverse composers and musicians, but I don't know where to start!" I invite you to start with the Chicago Sinfonietta. 

Listen to this week's Out of the Box segment:

CHICAGO SINFONIETTA and PAUL FREEMAN

The Chicago Sinfonietta has diversity and inclusion in its veins. Where other, much older organizations are only now, in the 21st century, slowly beginning to turn their attention to these principles, the Chicago Sinfonietta has been making it their raison d'être for more than three decades.

"Rarely performed music by composers of color are a Sinfonietta staple," they write on their website, "and often include almost entirely lost compositions that are carefully pieced together and preserved through recording and/or the production of sheet music."

The focus on high quality music making that seeks to lift up underrepresented voices is all thanks to the tireless efforts of Maestro Paul Freeman. "The problem [for] many minority musicians," he told the Chicago Tribune in 1989, "is that, for various reasons, they have been locked in the minor leagues, so to speak. But they are coming up. They only need to be nurtured."

So, Freeman formed an orchestra to do just that.

Since 1987, the Chicago Sinfonietta has been addressing "the disconnect between the utter lack of diversity in orchestras and the vibrant, nuanced, communities for which they play." And they have been incredibly successful. Not only have they recorded several albums, but the orchestra has won the prestigious MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions, traveled the world several times, given voice to countless underheard composers and musicians, and become an inseparable member of the Chicago music scene.

Sadly, Freeman passed away at just 79 years old in 2015. Over his career, in addition to creating the Chicago Sinfonietta, he had led some 100 orchestras in more than 30 countries, something very few conductors of any generation can boast. But the crown jewel of his legacy is and always will be the Chicago Sinfonietta, a legacy that continues today through conductor Mei-Ann Chen, who is now in her 10th year as Music Director of Chicago Sinfonietta.

In an era when orchestras and other classical music organizations are attempting (with varying degrees of success) to diversify their repertoire, their musicians, and their audiences, they could all learn from the successes of the Chicago Sinfonietta. 

PROJECT W

"As a young girl growing up," writes Mei-Ann Chen in the liner notes for the Chicago Sinfonietta's 2019 album Project W, "I was told I could not possibly be a conductor. I am not the only one ... There are many stories similar to mine - thank goodness so many of us did not listen!"

Project W started back in 2016, on the eve of the Sinfonietta's 30th anniversary season. They wanted to do something special, something that honored the legacy of Paul Freeman, celebrated their current music director Mei-Ann Chen, and continued to move the dial forward on diversity.

The answer was a year-long initiative that commissioned four compositions from diverse, contemporary, women (hence the W) composers - Jennifer Higdon, Clarice Assad, Reena Esmail, and Jessie Montgomery - and culminated in the release of the Project W album.

But they didn't stop at just four women composers. In addition to commissioning four works, the Sinfonietta committed to raising the profile of women composers in its overall programming. During the 2017-2018 season, 43% of the music the ensemble played was written by women. While still less than half, it's an extraordinary percentage when compared to other orchestras. For instance, according to the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, in the 2015-2016 season, only an estimated 1.7% of music performed by other professional orchestras was written by women.

The album, and indeed the organization on a whole, is a testament to the fact that it really is possible to be diverse, to encourage inclusion, and celebrate the full spectrum of voices writing music out there today (and in the past) and be successful.

AFRICAN HERITAGE SYMPHONIC SERIES

In 2000, Paul Freeman and the Chicago Sinfonietta released three albums of music from 20th-century composers of African descent. The three volumes span the pioneers of the early 20th-century like Samuel Coleridge Taylor and William Grant Still, the innovators of the mid-twentieth century like Adolphus Hailstork, and composers like David Baker and William Banfield, who in the late-20th, early 21st-century stand on the shoulders of those who came before.

To fully do this series justice, I invite you to read the fantastic program notes for the series written by Dominique-René de Lerma, which Cedille Records has made available on their website, and then explore the music on these three volumes through the Spotify playlist above.