Starting out on the right foot is generally a good idea for a performance of any kind. But it was at the beginning of their multiculturally inspired musical event at the Shedd Aquarium on April 30th that the chamber ensemble of the Chicago Sinfonietta was most flatfooted.
Playing the “Spring” section from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons may have seemed a good idea on paper for a program dedicated to “The Glory of Creation,” but the actual performance was unpolished and offkey and lacking in any rhythmic spring and one wonders why they bothered.
An equally dubious performance of some light music by the Czech composer Fibich followed, but things came to life thereafter as the group switched into avant-garde mode for a tasty morsel of the Japanese modern dance form known as Butoh.
Chicago-based Butoh artist Nicole Legette began her performance as an animated pile of white sheets at stage right, moving center to extrude herself as a pale humanoid figure doing complex and inexplicable moves in time with richly percussive musical back up.
Also intriguing (and demanding) was “Chewing Neckbones,” in which the reedist Mwata Bowden, a veteran of the legendary AACM, made profoundly otherworldly noises on the Australian didjeridu (aboriginal long trumpet) following up this virtuoso turn with an equally challenging avant-garde flight on the baritone sax. The jazz-inflected group of musicians provided prime backup on this piece, and gave a smooth rendition of Billy Strayhorn’s “Chelsea Bridge” to redeem their earlier missteps.
This was already an ambitious program, but it concluded with a section of all-out gospel singing, as the Steward Wilson Gospel Singers (seven strong) took to the stage to present some swinging versions of classic gospel hits. Well and truly done.
There was a lot to criticize in this rough-around-the-edges performance from awkward transitions to faulty intonation and pointless visual projections. But the Sinfonietta still deserves kudos for attempting this kind of program. They pulled no punches in the challenges they presented to their audience. And the sizeable group, who had trekked all the way to Chicago’s beautifully situated Museum Campus for the event, were quite enthusiastic in their appreciation. Nice to see so many people galvanized by so much unaccustomed sound.!