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. Orchestras across the country were doing well for the most part, though if you looked carefully enough you could already discern some of the challenges that would confront the field in the years to come. Most orchestras no longer reflected the communities in which they performed. While a few people recognized that this was problematic, most orchestra leaders were content to continue along the same path that these institutions had followed for one hundred years or more. Maestro Paul Freeman had a decidedly different vision of what an orchestra could, and should be.
Paul had earned an international reputation through years of guest conducting all over the world and as Music Director of a number of orchestras in the US and Canada. He was the first African American on the podium of over 50 orchestras worldwide and had a huge catalog of recordings to his credit. 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.
When the Sinfonietta performed for the first time in October of 1987, concerts took place in River Forest at Rosary College and downtown at Orchestra Hall. The Sinfonietta was a different type of orchestra from the very beginning. The orchestra members, staff, board of directors, guest artists, and most importantly of all, the audience, were of diverse backgrounds. No one had ever seen anything quite like this in classical music. And the music was different. Yes, the Sinfonietta could, and did play the standards to great critical acclaim. But under Paul’s leadership, innovative concerts became a part of the Sinfonietta “experience.”
The rarely performed music by composers of color became a Sinfonietta staple, and introduced these symphonic “gems” to generations of concert-goers. Through recordings like the three-volume African Heritage Series, these lost compositions entered the classical music mainstream and brought acclaim and attention to deserving but unrecognized composers. Unusual instruments and musical styles like the bagpipes, steel drums, sitar, Indian Ghazal music, hip hop, and yes, even the ubiquitous cell phone became the centerpieces for some of the most daring musical collaborations any orchestra was programming. Unusual partnerships with arts organizations and ensembles including Redmoon Theater, the Apostolic Church of God Choir, the FootworKINGZ, and others significantly broadened the orchestra’s programming palette.
The Sinfonietta “experience” quickly caught on and the orchestra’s audience and support grew through its early seasons. Due to Paul’s international reputation, European tours were booked resulting in six overseas trips during the first 17 years. Other highlights included two triumphant performances at the Kennedy Center, 15 recordings , a 2008 performance at Millennium Park attended by over 12,000 people, and a nine-year relationship with the Joffrey Ballet.
Paul’s passion for helping others and 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, thereby inspiring the next generation of musicians and composers. Growing out of Paul’s life-long practice of mentoring and assisting young musicians, the orchestra founded a groundbreaking program, Project Inclusion, that provides two-year professional development fellowships to aspiring classical musicians from under-represented communities One young musician Paul helped by giving his very first professional performance opportunity to has gone on to become the most recognizable figure in classical music, Yo Yo Ma. Mr. Ma performed a concert in 2011 in honor of Paul and recognized the unique role he and the Chicago Sinfonietta have played in the development of the field. Anthony McGill and Jeremy Jordan, two young and extremely talented African American musicians, performed with Yo Yo that evening. The circle continues.
In 2009 Paul Freeman announced that he would retire at the end of the 2010-2011 Season and the Sinfonietta began its first Music Director search. The Board of Directors conducted a two-year, international search that began with over 40 candidates and concluded with eight finalists performing podium auditions throughout the regular seasons. This resulted in the unanimous selection of rising conducting star Mei-Ann Chen being appointed as Paul Freeman’s successor. In May of 2011 Paul publicly conducted the orchestra for the final time in a nationally broadcast concert, and in a particularly emotional moment, passed his baton to Mei-Ann at the conclusion of the performance. A giant had left the stage, but his legacy lives on.
Mei-Ann Chen’s tenure began with a welcoming 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 west suburban home in River Forest to Wentz Concert Hall in Naperville. The reviews and audience response for Maestro Chen’s first season were extraordinary, and the season concluded with the orchestra’s first recording in ten years that was released in 2013 on the Cedille label. In addition to these accomplishments, the Chicago Sinfonietta was named by ASCAP and the League of American Orchestras as the recipient of the 2011-12 Awards for Adventurous Programming for Mei-Ann’s first season of concerts. Her work was also honored by the League of American Orchestras by being chosen as the recipient of the Helen M. Thompson Award that recognizes early career music directors who show exceptional musical leadership and commitment to organizational vitality.
In 2013-2014 the Sinfonietta’s innovative, one-of-a-kind concert programming was taken to a new level resulting in the highest number of single ticket sales in the organization’s history. The Chicago Tribune dubbed the Sinfonietta, “The city’s hippest orchestra” and the industry’s leading publication, Symphony Magazine, dedicated an article showcasing how the orchestra is creating a new model of symphonic programming. The Sinfonietta made further national news by expanding its Project Inclusion program to include a new professional development opportunity for early career, diverse conductors. Project Inclusion has become the model program for the field.
As the Chicago Sinfonietta begins its next chapter 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 reality.