Chicago Music Review: MORE THAN A LETTER: A CELEBRATION OF LGBTQ ARTISTS AND CLASSICAL MUSIC (Chicago Sinfonietta)

by Lawrence Bommer on March 28, 2017

in Music,Theater-Chicago

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MORE THAN LAVENDER, BEYOND A RAINBOW

Finding another noble excuse to make music, for its fourth concert this season Chicago Sinfonietta offered a sweet salute to a worthy cause. Performed to a regrettably half-full Orchestra Hall, More Than a Letter: A Celebration of LGBTQ Artists and Classical Music was a well-conceived and impeccably chosen evening of music written and performed by gay, lesbian and transgendered artists. Guest conductor Michael Morgan delivered a nicely balanced and gratefully received program of impassioned and concentrated, once and future, musical memories.

Honoring the “self-identity and self-expression” of a sexual minority, More Than a Letter (what, you wonder, is the letter in question?) began with the promise of perpetuity: Written by Lauren Christy aka Grammy/Oscar-nominated writer/producer Stephan Moccio, “Stand in the Light,” an anthem proclaimed by Musicality, Curie High School’s professional vocal ensemble, set the right tone of proud defiance and sterling independence. Triumphantly, their young voices sung far into the future.

After that festive intro, the Sinfonietta sprang into the scintillating and cascading arias that comprise gay composer Leonard Bernstein’s Candide Overture, a sprightly and unstoppable romp that seems to channel the entire musical satire into mere minutes. It was followed by Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, performed by Sara Davis Buechner (formerly David), a much-praised transgendered pianist. She attacked the daunting and wide-ranging 24 variations on Paganini’s caprice with aplomb, technique and vitality. Playful and angry in the “Dies Irae” invocations, delicate, assured, and sublime in the tranquil middle variations, Buechner held her own with the mightily accompanying orchestra.

The second half opened with the delightfully and less than familiar Overture to the School for Scandal by gay composer Samuel Barber, his first work for full orchestra written when he was 21. As conductor Morgan wryly describes, this incarnation of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s witty exposé of social libel begins as gossip among the first violins, then spreads to the entire orchestra for a delicious denouement.

A Chicago premiere, Pulitzer/Grammy-winner Jennifer Higdon’s “Peachtree Street,” an excerpt from her Atlanta-based City Scape, was a raucous evocation of a possible Pride Parade—noisy, rhythmic, and, so to speak, all over the stage. Remembering Matthew Shepard (a young gay man who was murdered—some would say martyred—in 1998 in Wyoming), David Conte’s 1999 Elegy for Matthew, commissioned by New York’s Gay Men’s Chorus. Feelingly performed by the Sinfonietta, it was buttressed by the 30-member Allegrezza Singers in the choral balcony, led by artistic director Stephen Edwards. Their sincerity was beyond dispute but not their diction or projection, which made the program’s absence of the lyrics, an acrostic poem by John Sterling Walker, rather deplorable.

Finally, in blissful finale, the Allegrezza Singers and Chicago Sinfonietta again combined forces to present a charming recreation of the rather operatic first-act quintet from Bernstein’s West Side Story, as well as the haunting ballad “Somewhere,” a promissory note (“There’s a place for us”) yet to be redeemed.

Before the show and during the intermission, audience members had opportunities “to explore identity and challenge labels” by creating a self-portrait collage, writing a letter of courage to a stranger, and by watching a series of coming-out stories from the LGBTQ community presented by VideoOut, an online archive of same-sex testimony and witnessing.

Just like the Chicago Sinfonietta’s annually revered Martin Luther King Day salute, inclusion—another form of devotion—justified itself musically as much as morally.

photos by Chris Ocken

More Than a Letter: A Celebration of LGBTQ Artists and Classical Music
Chicago Sinfonietta
Orchestra Hall of Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan
reviewed March 27, 2017
also played March 25, 2017 (Naperville)
for more info, call 312.284.1559 or visit Chicago Sinfonietta

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