Think you know the best of the cultural mile? | Classical music with a mission

8 November 2017

With blues clubs to the south and the summer concert scene at Grant Park and Millennium Park to the north, 1000M sits in the center of a diverse musical world. But residents need stroll just a few blocks to the Chicago Symphony Center to see the performances of the Chicago Sinfonietta, which bills itself as the most diverse orchestra in the country.

“There is beauty in diversity, certainly in what you see onstage and in our audience, but also in the kind of music that we present and how we do that. It runs the gamut,” says Courtney Perkins, the Sinfonietta’s director of development and operations.

The 30-year-old Sinfonietta still adheres to the mission of its pioneering founder and first conductor, Maestro Paul Freeman. He wanted to create an orchestra that provided opportunities for musicians, composers, conductors and soloists from all backgrounds and also hoped to build an audience that reflected the diversity of Chicago.

Paul Freeman (left) is the founder of the Chicago Sinfonietta where Mei-Ann Chen (right) is the Music Director.

“The first time [Freeman] ever saw an orchestra, he sat in the balcony—which was the segregated section for people of color,” Perkins says. “And even then it made such an incredible impact on him, how the conductor pulled the sounds out of his musicians. He was always drawn to that and he wanted others to have the same experience.”

Despite the Chicago Symphony Orchestra—one of the best orchestras in the world—already being based in the city, Freeman went to work. Freeman wooed potential supporters “one coffee at a time,” eventually creating a founding board, many members of whom still are subscribers today, Perkins says.

Through mentoring programs for minority musicians and conductors and its community outreach programs, the Sinfonietta promotes classical music to many who would not get a chance to experience it. Since its inception in 2008, the Project Inclusion Orchestra Fellowship program has mentored more than 45 musicians of color who have gone on to perform around the country. Seven of the eight conductors who have gone through the program have been placed on podiums as assistant conductors or music directors, Perkins says.

Trademark Concert, Chicago Sinfonietta - 9/18/17 Photo by Chris Ocken Copyright 2017 -
The Sinfonietta’s 2017 Trademark Concert

The Sinfonietta’s mission of diversity—which earned it a $625,000 MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions in 2016—extends beyond the makeup of the orchestra’s players.

Called “the city’s hippest orchestra” by the Chicago Tribune, the Sinfonietta finds its joy in breaking down the wall of intimidation that blocks potential fans from attending classical concerts. Through innovative partnerships with other arts groups, it presents eclectic programs that present classical music in creative new ways.

Conducting the Sinfonietta since 2011, Maestro Mei-Ann Chen continues the group’s unique musical performance tradition. Looking at the current season, the Sinfonietta has performed or will perform with the Cerqua Rivera Dance Theatre, NIU Steelband, NewMoon Chicago, the Roosevelt University Conservatory Choirs and punk marching band Mucca Pazza.

For its annual Martin Luther King Tribute concert, Maestro Chen will mix orchestra, opera, jazz vocals, spoken word, archival audio samples and video. The ensemble blends classical mainstays with new works it has commissioned from four diverse women composers to premiere during the season and be recorded as the orchestra’s 16th album in 2019.

The Sinfonietta’s 2017 MLK Tribute Concert

Perkins explains that most of the Sinfonietta’s concerts are created around a theme, and the organization creates an audience engagement experience around that theme that extends beyond the performances.

Organizers might invite groups to speak with concert-goers before the performances and at intermission. For an LGBTQ-themed concert, the Sinfonietta invited several local groups that work with the LGBTQ community to make presentations.

“We try to create an open space through the umbrella of classical music to talk about something totally separate from the music,” Perkins says. “This is a really special thing and I don’t exactly know what the word for it is —but somehow a community is built. It’s really special.”

The Sinfonietta season consists of five programs that the full orchestra performs twice—once at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave., and once at a suburban location.

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Chicago Sinfonietta // Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave. //

Photos by Chris Ocken Copyright 2017 –