The Chicago Sinfonietta is a professional orchestra that forms unique cultural connections through the universal language of symphonic music.
The Chicago Sinfonietta Story
The year was 1987. Classical music pioneer, Maestro Paul Freeman had a decidedly different vision of what an orchestra could, and should be. He felt that orchestras should reflect the people and the values of the communities they served. Maestro Freeman had earned an international reputation as a conductor and was the first African American on the podium of over 50 orchestras worldwide. By the mid-1980s he concluded that the time was right for a mid-sized orchestra dedicated to promoting diversity, inclusion, and innovative programming, and he decided that Chicago was the right place to do this.
The Chicago Sinfonietta performed for the first time in October 1987 in River Forest at Rosary College and downtown at Orchestra Hall. The Sinfonietta was unlike any orchestra that had come before it. Musicians, staff, Board of Directors, guest artists, and most importantly, the audience, were of diverse backgrounds. And, the music was different too. The Sinfonietta performed the standards to great critical acclaim, but under Freeman’s leadership, innovative concerts became a central part of the Sinfonietta experience.
The rarely performed music by composers of color became a Sinfonietta staple, introducing these symphonic gems to new generations of concert-goers. Unusual musical styles and instruments like the bagpipes, steel drums, sitar, Indian Ghazal music, and even the ubiquitous cell phone became the centerpieces for some of the most adventurous programs offered by any orchestra. Another way the orchestra’s programming palette expanded was through daring collaborations with arts organizations and ensembles including the Deeply Rooted Dance Theater, the Apostolic Church of God Choir, the alternative rock group Poi Dog Pondering, and others.
Freeman’s international reputation, and the orchestra’s growing acclaim resulted in six European tours in the first 17 years, two triumphant performances at the Kennedy Center and fourteen recordings. Maestro Freeman’s passion for opening the doors of classical music to everyone was also expressed through the Sinfonietta’s educational and mentoring programs. Thousands of public school students have, and continue to benefit from, the organization’s Audience Matters and SEED programs that place Sinfonietta musicians in classrooms, inspiring the next generation of musicians and audience members. The orchestra’s groundbreaking Project Inclusion program that provides two-year professional development fellowships to aspiring classical musicians from under-represented communities grew out of Paul’s life-long practice of mentoring and assisting young musicians.
In 2009, Freeman announced his retirement and the search for his replacement began. After a two-year, international search, Mei-Ann Chen was unanimously selected as Music Director. Maestro Chen’s tenure began with a concert at Millennium Park attended by over 7,000 people. Her inaugural season in 2011-2012 also coincided with the orchestra’s move from its long time suburban home to Wentz Concert Hall in Naperville. The reviews and audience response for Maestro Chen’s debut were extraordinary. The Sinfonietta closed its 2012-2013 season with the orchestra’s first recording in ten years released on Cedille Records.
In addition to these accomplishments, the Chicago Sinfonietta was named by the ASCAP Foundation as the recipient of the 2012 First Place Award for Adventurous Programming for Mei-Ann’s first season of concerts. Maestro Chen was also recognized by the League of American Orchestras as the recipient of the 2012 Helen M. Thompson Award, saluting early career music directors who show exceptional musical leadership and commitment to organizational vitality.
As the Chicago Sinfonietta begins the next twenty-five years of presenting one-of-a-kind concerts, inspiring young students to pursue music as a life-long passion or career, and serving as the model for diversity, inclusion and innovation, it is clear that Paul Freeman’s dream of a special orchestra in Chicago has become a long lasting reality.