Digital Guide to Día de los Muertos

This season marks the sixth in which the Chicago Sinfonietta celebrates the Mexican holiday of Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, with a concert given over to the themes of honoring the departed both by mourning our loss, but, more importantly, celebrating their lives. This year, however, the orchestra also honors one of its own, Sinfonietta founder Paul Freeman, who passed away this year, with a world-premiere composition dedicated to him. On our journey we’ll travel from darkness to light, from despair to transcendence.

Click here to watch Maestro Mei-Ann Chen's concert preview!


Andrés Franco, Conductor

1516_concert2 A native of Colombia, Andrés Franco is dedicated to preserving and performing the music of the Americas. As Principal Conductor of Caminos del Inka, he has led many performances of Latin American music by contemporary composers, such as Jimmy López, Diego Luzuriaga and the popular Argentine composer, Astor Piazzolla. Born into a musical family, Andrés Franco began piano studies with his father, Jorge Franco. An accomplished pianist, he studied with Van Cliburn Gold Medalist Jose Feghali and attended piano workshops with Rudolph Buchbinder in Switzerland and Lev Naumov in France. He studied conducting with Marin Alsop, Miguel Harth-Bedoya, Kurt Masur, Gustav Meier, Helmut Rilling, Gerard Schwarz and Leonard Slatkin.

Now based in Texas, Franco is the Music Director of the Signature Symphony at Tulsa Community College, Artistic Director of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra’s Summer Festival, and Assistant Conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. He also travels frequently as a guest conductor in the United States, Spain and Latin America.

You can find, along with a biography, gallery and more, examples of Franco leading standard repertoire at his bilingual website, but this video of Franco leading Peruvian composer Jimmy López’s Techno shows him in a Latin American context.

Beth Best and Seth Durbin, Directors

Chicago Sinfonietta If you’ve attended the Chicago Sinfonietta’s Martin Luther King tribute concerts over the past few years, than you’ve likely encountered the Mosaic Choir of Waubonsie Valley High School in Aurora, Illinois joyously belting out an international selection of praise songs, including gospel, in Dr. King’s honor. Mosaic is part of a large and extensive music program at Waubonsie Valley that includes multiple Varsity Choirs and other ensembles. The combined choirs join us at our Day of the Dead concert on Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem.

Waubonsie Valley High School is the “original Valley” of Indian Prairie School District #204’s three high schools. The school, and its music department, celebrate their fortieth birthday this year. The Grammy Award-winning music program boasts over 25% of the student body in its band, chorus, and orchestra classes. The Varsity Choirs total over 70 students and are split into two sections: Singers and Chamber. They are the most advanced ensembles of a choral program with eight curricular choirs and seven co- and extra-curricular ensembles.

More information on the extensive Waubonsie Valley music program can be found at their dedicated website. The video shows the Varsity Choirs along with the Waubonsie Valley High Symphony Orchestra performing a portion of Dvorak’s Requiem.

Paul Freeman: Season of Celebration

Día de los Muertos marks the second concert in a full season of events celebrating the life and legacy of Maestro Paul Freeman. Join us for the world premiere of Ofrendas, a new work composed by Elbio Barilari in Paul’s memory. Attendees are also invited to contribute to an ofrenda created in Paul's honor and to share your memories through our "1,000 Stories Project" video booth.

Learn More

What's an "ofrenda?"

An ofrenda or "offering" is a collection of objects placed on a ritual altar during the annual and traditionally Mexican, Día de los Muertos celebration. Click on the button to the right for a video from the Hispanic Cultural Center with a little more context!


Adagio for Strings

barber200Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, written when the composer was only 28 years old, has been called one of the saddest pieces of music ever written. In the context of this program, it conveys the devastating sadness and loss that we feel when a loved one dies. The piece’s elegiac strains were introduced to the larger public through its particularly poignant use in the 1986 film Platoon. An uneasy sadness lingers in the piece, as a tense melody slowly and hesitantly moves through a kind of lament, building to a climax, after which the piece shifts into a quiet resolution.

Barber is one of the most celebrated composers of the 20th century. He composed orchestral, opera, choral and piano music. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for music twice. A child prodigy, he wrote his first piano piece at age 7 and his first opera at the 10, and was accepted into the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music at 14.

This NPR Music piece includes audio samples and was written on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Barber’s birth in 2010. The video is a good measure of the emotional resonance of the Adagio, as it was performed just days after the September 11 attack in remembrance of the lives lost.


Gabriel_Fauré_by_Pierre_Petit_1905_-_Gallica_2010_(cropped) The Roman Catholic Requiem, or Mass for the Dead, dates back to the middle ages in its musical form. Early masses generally utilized Gregorian chant as a musical basis. By the time French composer Gabriel Fauré wrote his in the late 1800s, though, they had in a sense become concert pieces, divorced from liturgical use, as composers used their grand themes as the basis for musical exploration. Fauré himself was quoted as saying “My Requiem wasn't written for anything – for pleasure, if I may call it that!” Nonetheless, the structure of its movements follows church ritual. It remains a Mass for the Dead.

Fauré’s early musical training was that of a church organist and choir master, so he was no doubt fully immersed in language and ritual, even if his religious convictions are in doubt. And though Fauré is considered to be among the masters of the French art song, the Requiem is among but a few large-scale vocal works, and it is far and away the most popular. It has been called "a lullaby of death" because of its predominantly gentle tone. For this Day of the Dead performance, the Sinfonietta will perform three of its seven movements. Two of them, Introit et Kyrie and Agnus Dei et Lux Aeterna, are mournful in spirit and will follow Barber’s Adagio. The third and final movement, In Paradisum, will follow later in the program as the tone shifts from darkness into light.

Classical Net has a good summary of Fauré’s life and music. The video is a performance of In Paradisum.


DG15_01_23_052.jpg Elbio Barilari was born in Montevideo, Uruguay and moved to Chicago in the late 1990s. His music has also been performed by many chamber ensembles and soloists around the world, including clarinetist Paquito D’Rivera, trumpet players Orbert Davis and Jon Faddis, bandoneon players Juan José Mosalini and Raúl Jaurena, pianists Mauricio Nader and Susan Merdinger, Avalon String Quartet, Kaia String Quartet, Conjunto de Música de Cámara del Sodre, Ondas Ensemble, and the Millennium Chamber Orchestra. In addition to his work as a composer, he is also a tireless champion on Latin American classical music, hosting WFMT’s Fiesta! and co-founding the Latino Music Festival, of which this concert is a presentation. He also teaches Latin American music at UIC.

Ofrendas is a world premiere dedicated to the memory of Paul Freeman. The word means “offerings” in English, and it is used to describe the altars that are built throughout the Americas to honor departed loved ones, especially during this holiday. The piece, which is inspired musically by folk forms but entirely original, consists of three movements: 1. Mictecacihuatl, Lady of the Underworld; 2. Cempasúchil (which translates as Marigold, the flower); and 3. Danza de los Alfeñiques (or Dance of the Sugar Skulls).

A thorough biography of Barilari can be found at the Latino Music Festival website. Being a World Premiere, of course there are no recordings of Ofrendas. This brief clip of the Latin American Ensemble, however, is a portion of Barilari’s Los Cantos.

Comments from the composer: "Maestro Freeman is a source of inspiration to me. Of course, he was a fantastic musician but he was also much more than that. He was a cultural leader committed to his community and to the cause of minorities in general.

I am amazed when I listen to the many CD's he recorded, presenting music by magnificent composers forgotten by the mainstream. Likewise, I am in awe when I see the unbelievable programs he put together for the Chicago Sinfonietta for so many years. I attended many of his concerts and I enjoyed his musical knowledge and ability to make great music while leading the most ethnically diverse symphony orchestra in the United States.

Unfortunately, I did not get to know him personally. I wish I would have had the opportunity to learn directly from him about his experiences as a conductor and as a cultural leader. When Maestro Andrés Franco suggested my piece Ofrendas (Offerings) could be dedicated to Maestro Freeman, I immediately agreed. I am very grateful to have the opportunity of make my offering to Maestro Freeman with a piece that has been commissioned and will be premiered by the great orchestra he created."

Three Latin American Dances for Orchestra

gs-frank-portrait-by-sabina-frank-691w Identity has always been at the center of Gabriela Lena Frank's music. Born in Berkeley, California, to a mother of mixed Peruvian/Chinese ancestry and a father of Lithuanian/Jewish descent, Frank explores her multicultural heritage most ardently through her compositions. Frank is something of a musical anthropologist. She has traveled extensively throughout South America and her pieces reflect and refract her studies of Latin American folklore, incorporating poetry, mythology, and native musical styles into a western classical framework that is uniquely her own.

With Three Latin American Dances (Jungle Jaunt, Highland Harawi, and The Mestizo Waltz), Frank not only explores Latin America, but her own mestizo (mixed) identity as well, made doubly significant by the fact that she was born in the U.S. and is not an immigrant. At a time when the Latino population here is growing not so much by immigration but rather through birth, it remains important for many to retain their Latino identity as second or third generation Americans. It’s why traditions like Día de los Muertos have significance not only in Mexico, but here as well.

You can find Frank’s own description of Three Latin American Dances as well as an audio sample at the Music Sales Classical website. There isn’t a video of the piece, but this excerpt of her ,em>Leyendas performed by the Sphinx Virtuosi will give you a flavor of her music.

Ride of the Valkyries from Die Walküre

richard-wagner-1233837879-view-2 There can be little doubt that, as a human being, Richard Wagner was truly despicable. A bigot and anti-Semite, his writings and philosophy later provided the intellectual foundation for the rise of fascism in Germany. His personal life was a mess. Contemporary culture tends to reinforce this view, as anyone who has witnessed Ride of the Valkyries used to illustrate the madness of a particularly horrific scene in the film Apocalypse Now can attest. So what is Wagner doing here at a Chicago Sinfonietta concert?

It can be difficult to separate a person from the art he creates, but in Wagner’s case it might be necessary. Wagner’s massive operas, among the greatest of all classical works, were often about exceeding human limitations, set among mortals and gods. In Die Walküre, a five hour opera, the five or so minutes that make up Ride of the Valkyries depict the transportation of fallen heroes to Valhalla. In pre-Hispanic tradition, part of their belief system involves a similar journey between worlds in which the living transcend the limitations of mortality through death, which is not an end but a continuation of existence. That is the context in which Ride of the Valkyries is best considered here.

An exhaustive source of links on all things Wagner can be found at The video, in which there are no menacing helicopters, is of the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Daniel Barenboim.


José Pablo Moncayo A concert inspired by a Mexican holiday needs at least one Mexican composer, and in José Pablo Moncayo and his Huapango, we arrive at a celebratory and lively conclusion to the performance. Born in Guadalajara during the Mexican Revolution, Moncayo was part of an artistic movement that explored what it meant to be Mexican, producing several works that symbolize the essence of the national aspirations and contradictions of Mexico in the 20th century. Moncayo was a protégé of Carlos Chávez, considered the father of Mexican nationalist composers and the founder of National Symphony Orchestra of Mexico.

Huapango is a result of Moncayo and another of Chávez’s students, future composer Blas Galindo, being sent to the state of Veracruz to do field research into traditional Mexican music, collecting melodies, rhythms and instrumentations in the space of several days. Returning to Mexico City, Moncayo developed what he had learned into an original composition using modern composing techniques, and Huapango had its premiere in 1941 at the Palacio de Bellas Artes.

Although there are several resources to learn more about Moncayo in Spanish, one of the better English biographies is at Wikipedia. Huapango is written for full orchestra. The video is of Gustavo Dudamel conducting at the Proms.

Research and copywriting by Don Macica.

Don is the founder of Home Base Arts Marketing Services and a contributing writer to several online publications including Agúzate and Arte y Vida Chicago. When not traveling, he lives a stone's throw from Lake Michigan in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood. He is the author of Border Radio, a blog about music, migration and cultural exchange.