Chicago Music Review: DÍA DE LOS MUERTOS: THE DANCE OF LIFE AND DEATH (Chicago Sinfonietta)

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by Lawrence Bommer on November 1, 2016

in Theater-Chicago


Halloween night at Chicago’s Orchestra Hall: This year it meant alternately sinister or soaring sounds worthy of its title Día de los Muertos: The Dance of Life and Death. Yes, there was a costume contest, won by a lady in a spooktacular headdress. Yes, the players of the Chicago Sinfonietta fixed gibbering skull masks onto the taller instruments and sported orange corsages in contrast to the black formal wear, and the conductor donned skeleton gloves to lead a dance of the dead. And, yes, the music was magnificently illustrated by vintage silent-film horror animation tailored to the music.

The Sinfonietta's Dia de los Muertos Concert at Symphony Center on Monday, October 31st, 2016. Photo by Jasmin Shah

But the evening was more than just scary gimmickry.

As gleefully conducted by music director Mei-Ann Chen, this salute to the intersections of life and death was a showcase for composers who dared to open the gates of hell. Like the all-night celebrants at cemeteries on All Souls Night, they offered their own vigils over the graves of lost ones. They let their music cast its spells.


Cleverly opening the concert with a salute to the Chicago Cubs’ first World Series in 71 years (an audience sing-along of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”), Chen next moved to Osvaldo Golijov’s bittersweet Last Round, a pugilistically named defiance and finally acceptance of mortality. The opening movement echoed Dylan Thomas’s “rage against the dying of the light”: With the violin and viola players standing, this turbulent work strained the strings in anguished combat with fate (a pulsating double bass beat). The second movement “Muertes del ángel” (“Deaths of Angel”) brought redemption and as much acceptance as a slower tempo and mellower tone could provide.

dia-de-web-370x527Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture remains a stern and brooding paen to Shakespeare’s haughty contrarian, angrily echoed by his 19th century German equivalent. The concert’s first half finished with an impassioned rendition of Mussorgsky’s very appropriate Night on Bald Mountain, a frenzied witches’ Sabbath here illustrated by the haunting phantasms of a 1933 animation by Alexander Alexeieff and Claire Parker. The intermission featured slides of Halloween revelers caught in the acts of not being themselves.

Fitting the spirit of November 2nd, Popol-Vuh was an eloquently epic Chicago premiere by Carlos Rafael Rivera (present for the occasion). These four Mayan scenes from a Meso-American creation myth were accompanied by helpful captions detailing the first creation, birth of the hero twins, third creation and the dawn of humanity as Sun and Moon usher in the citadel of Xibalba. Rivera’s eclectic score mirrored these embryonic events with an enthralling mix of struggle and serenity. Later, his clever PizziCuban Polka, also a Chicago premiere, slowly imposed Latin rhythms on the Strauss brothers famous Pizzicato Polka. Vienna and Havana, cavorting together for the first and last time.


Combining tricks and treats, Chen and her wonder workers delivered a spirited evocation of Camille Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre, its visual backdrop the same-titled 1922 film by Visual Symphony Productions (courtesy of Chicago Film Archives). Its harrowing tale of partners Love and Youth escaping the Grim Reaper by melting into the dawn was reinforced by our realization that these long-dead actors were furiously resisting their—and our–inevitable demise.

Finally, striking a celebratory note, Blas Galindo’s festive 1940 Sones de Mariachi paid joyful tribute and syncopated subtlety to Mexico’s merriest music, a welcome reaffirmation of life after we’d dwelt with the dead for nearly two hours.

The Sinfonietta's Dia de los Muertos Concert at Symphony Center on Monday, October 31st, 2016. Photo by Jasmin Shah

photos by Jasmin Shaw

dia-de-web-370x527Día de los Muertos:
The Dance of Life and Death
Chicago Sinfonietta, Chicago Film Archives
Orchestra Hall of Symphony Center
reviewed Monday, October 31, 2016
(also played Saturday, October 29
at Wentz Concert Hall of North Central College)
for more info, call 312.284.1559
or visit Chicago Sinfonietta

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