Chicago Sinfonietta Presents PRAISE AND PUNK Review—Classics with Silliness and Heart

Chris Ocken Photography

“Wait a minute! Prokofiev wrote a happy ending!” That somewhat unexpected revelation about the Russian composer’s Romeo and Juliet pretty much summed up Praise and Punk. A collaboration between the Chicago Sinfonietta and absurdist marching band Mucca Pazza, the Sinfonietta’s conclusion to its thirtieth season also featured the Apostolic Church of God Sanctuary Choir. Between their different genres and aesthetics, the three groups created a medley of cheerful, elegant music with a lot of warmth and some of the most striking visuals of any classical concert seen recently.

The concert began with the gospel choir singing “How Excellent is Thy Name,” a modernist style hymn by Eugene Butler. At the first performance in Naperville’s Wentz Concert Hall, Mei-Ann Chen conducted with enough enthusiasm to shake her entire body. She and the choir were clearly in sync, since even the first notes were enough to establish a joyous atmosphere.

Chicago Sinfonietta Debuts a Young Star

In contrast to the grandeur of the hymn, the next selection, La Muse et le Poète, by Camille Saint-Saëns, was intimate and clearly personal. Chicago Sinfonietta is dedicated to inclusiveness and the nurturing of diverse talent, and the May 12th performance marked the Sinfonietta debut of 15-year-old cellist Ifetayo Ali-Landing. Certainly the emotional highlight of the evening, Ali-Landing’s plaintiff, supremely dignified vibrato instantly captured the hearts of the entire audience and visibly moved the choir. Her partner was violinist Melissa White of the Harlem Quartet, whose face and sound lit up when she mixed her instrument’s voice with that of the young woman she had obviously formed a bond with. During the fifteen minutes they played, the usual bustle in a crowded concert hall came to a halt. Project Inclusion Fellow Kellen Gray conducted with a laser-like focus that allowed the entire orchestra to seem to become one organism with Ali-Landing and White.

Chris Ocken Photography

Gospel Joy Welcomes Mucca Pazza

But if the audience was entranced by the passion of Saint-Saëns, they soon started moving again. The gospel component of the evening concluded with a marathon of songs of worship arranged by Willetta Greene Johnson, featuring seven soloists and three conductors. The conductors switched off, creating an exuberant energy that reached its peak when one of them accidently knocked over his music stand. (His conducting was no worse for it.) The rapturous excitement at the end of the first act proved an appropriate teaser for Mucca Pazza, whose bizarre outfits make everything amusing.

Chris Ocken Photography

Weird Humor Earns a Happy Ending

The center-piece of the second act, Sergei Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet Suite was accompanied by a video projection of nesting dolls being used to act out the story live. Even this presentation couldn’t quite obscure the menace of the “Dance of the Knights.” However, the nesting doll gore proved a perfect visual representation of Mucca Pazza’s delightful send-up of Shakespeare, which was simultaneously enacted by its members.

Chicago Sinfonietta and Mucca Pazza did indeed perform the seldom-heard happy ending for Romeo and Juliet and afforded it much greater dignity than the rest of the play. In the absence of the Bolshoi, it turns out that egg-shaped pieces of wood rotating around each other can have their own strange beauty. Who knew? The concert concluded with another high-spirited, comical medley borrowing from other operas and classical narrative pieces. The concept of some sort of showdown between the two companies seemed to have fallen by the wayside, but they proved how well they can work together. Perhaps the spirit of friendship and choosing the happy ending is the best way for Chicago Sinfonietta to head into their fourth decade.

All photos: Chris Ocken Photography.

Visit Chicago Sinfonietta to learn more about upcoming productions.

About the Author: Jacob Davis

Jacob Davis has lived in Chicago since 2014 when he started writing articles about theatre, opera, and dance for a number of review websites. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Department of Theatre, where he specialized in the history of modernist dramatic literature and criticism. While there, he interned as a dramaturge for Dance Heginbotham developing concepts for new dance pieces. His professional work includes developing the original jazz performance piece The Blues Ain’t a Color with Denise LaGrassa, which played at Theater Wit. He has also written promotional materials for theatre companies including Silk Road Rising.

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