Chicago Sinfonietta Dia de los Muertos Concert Review – Day of Dead Done Right

Chicago Sinfonietta Throws Best Halloween Party

How wrong those fleeting thoughts were that the timing of Chicago Sinfonietta’s “Dia de los Muertos” (Day of the Dead) performance on the actual Halloween night might have been bad timing. Though the CTA bus wound past many a colorful band of trick or treaters en route, the big show and best Halloween event in the city perhaps WAS the Chicago Sinfonietta at Symphony Center. Knowing how the Sinfonietta infuses everything they do with fun, we should have known better and anticipated the festive air.

How especially amusing to see so many Chicagoans decked out in costumes in the grand Symphony Center space that often is typically suit or black tie crowded!

If you didn’t already know it was a party, you certainly did when you went to the Grainger Ballroom during intermission.   There Chicago Sinfonietta had arts and crafts for children, face-painting, an altar in Mexican Day of the Dead tradition, a free photo booth and on-the-ready costumes for poses, and more. That alone could have been an evening’s worth of entertainment, but in true overachieving joy style, Chicago Sinfonietta made that just the stuff of their intermission pause! The carnival touch then made its way back into the grand performance hall when the audience got to vote on the best costume prize winners.

Chicago Sinfonietta

Go Cubs and Tango Inspired Opening

Not one to miss the chance for a giddiness-inducing surprise, conductor Mei-Ann Chen made her entrance to the grand hall in a Cubs baseball hat and began leading the orchestra in a rousing sing-along of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” .

The violins and violas were standing for this first song, which we then learned from Chen was a specific request of the first composer, Osvaldo Golijov, for how an orchestra should play his “Last Round for string ensemble”. This boxing ring named piece was an homage to Argentine tango composer Piazzolla, who at that time was fighting for his life. The strings were in tango quartets. A great opener to the program proper, the first movement was frenetic joy, followed by a soulful “Death of Angels” dirge with an especially exquisite ending of long slow bows in a decrescendo to a whisper.

The stirring feeling of that ending fade was also a hallmark of the two following pieces as well‑Beethoven’s “Coriolan” and Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain”, arranged by Rimsky-Korsakov.

Chicago Sinfonietta

Spooky Silent Films Too

“Night on Bald Mountain” was accompanied by an astounding 1933 animation peppered with black and white goblins and ghouls by Alexander Alexeieff and Claire Parker. Any child of the ‘60’s in the audience that came thinking their generation had invented psychedelics,would have been forced to re-think that premise.   Spooky!

Chicago Sinfonietta

In the second half of the performance, another silent film courtesy of Chicago Film Archives, this one from 1922, accompanied the orchestra performing Saint-Saëns “Danse Macabre”. This film was also noteworthy because of Chicago dance treasure Ruth Page starring as the haunted ingénue. Here too it was Chen’s baton dialing the orchestra down to a delicate ending as the screen focused on “FIN”, that seemed to underline just how much we had been transported to a reverie by this film and orchestra coupling.

Chicago Sinfonietta

Mayan Creation Story

American Composer Carlos Rafael Rivera of Guatemalan-Cuban descent was in Symphony Center for the performance of two of his works—“Popul-Vuh” and “PizziCuban Polka”.

Telling the Mayan story of creation, “Popul-Vuh” created a sound scape of void in the beginning, to the creaking and paddling emergence of critters and life, to the downfall of the gods. Even though this music was accompanied by a narrative and not film per se, it struck this reviewer as being the most cinematic sound of the evening. It included beautiful marimba music that Chicagoans rarely get to hear unless they frequent Casa Guatemala dinners. Hopefully Chicago Sinfonietta will add this to their Day of the Dead concert staple.

Rivera’s Strauss-inspired polka took that European-born music and gave it Latin dance rhythms--- how fun!

Chicago Sinfonietta

Day of the Dead Done Right

Last but not least was Galindo’s “Sones de Mariacchi”, a rousing reminder for many Chicagoans of how and why we have to thank our Mexican neighbors for putting “Day of the Dead” festivities so much on our radar.

But thanks also to Chicago Sinfonietta, for showing our city how to do Dead of the Dead right.

There are three more concerts in the Chicago Sinfonietta season and many more events. Learn more at



Black and White photos provided by Chicago Sinfonietta and Fotio Vintage Open Air Photo Booth." Find more at

Concert hall performance photos by Jasmin Shah

Color photos of lobby and Grainger Ballroom by Peter Kachergis


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