Marching to the Beat of Different Drummers

“I did lose, like two nights of sleep, thinking, ‘How are we going to collaborate?’ We are a symphony orchestra and I don’t want to lose the integrity of that!” recalls Maestro Mei Ann Chen, the Chicago Sinfonietta’s Music Director, of planning for the Sinfonietta’s opening concert this season.

The concert, a “battle of the bands,” features the orchestral ensemble facing off with the iconoclastic, anarchistic punk marching band, Mucca Pazza.

This collaboration and others in the past season (such as last season’s with a DJ) speak to the Sinfonietta’s faithfulness to a twenty-seven year history in fulfillment to a unique mission, says Maestro Chen, “…following founder Maestro Paul Freeman in pushing the envelope in terms of innovative programming.”

Of course, these performances are not always easy to pull off. In the case of Mucca Pazza, Chen notes that as it is a “hip” marching band that does its own choreography, it was important to allow them the space and freedom to be themselves.

Additionally, the music had to be selected with care. Maestro Chen speaks of dedicating the first half to some pieces inspired in marching bands, and then in the second half, incorporating original compositions by Mucca Pazza.

Mucca Pazza’s Meghan Strell also commented on the significance of the collaboration in light of Mucca’s goals as it approaches its 10th year. On the one hand, the highly independent Mucca Pazza originated from another marching band project which was anti-war, and she says, “came out of DIY and punk sensibilities.”

However, the idea of the collaboration with the Sinfonietta she characterizes as a “a dream of ours, a long time fantasy!” She describes that it was time for Mucca Pazza to refocus on musicianship and musical quality and create marching music that was ever more universal.

The culminating piece of the concert chosen by Maestro Chen is Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, and Strell says that particular piece did give Mucca pause. “One of our members said, ‘I don’t really want to do a war celebratory piece like the 1812 Overture!’” A band discussion ensued and the musicians came to terms with performing the Overture, which  Strell characterizes as “A brilliant choice.”

Strell describes that Mucca gets to play the French (who lost the war to the Russians, and this victory is the event celebrated in this piece) but notes, “Any loss of life is a tragedy. The Russians won, but they had to burn down Moscow to do it. It was a lose-lose war.”

Originally the 1812 Overture had a part for a marching band, says Strell, and this has been expanded for Mucca’s part: “The orchestra is anchored, but we get to run around and threaten chaos! It works really well–they are Russia and we are France. We get to fail brilliantly!”

Strell is also delighted that Mucca Pazza’s musicianship is being taken to another level as their original pieces have been scored for symphony. “That was huge honor–putting musicianship first. This is sort of a pinnacle of our experience!”

Nevertheless, the collaboration has it risks, Maestro Chen admits, however, she is happy with the results of the direction the Sinfonietta continues to take: “If we don’t try, everything is going to be the same. And very few orchestras can say they have increased their audiences, and their audiences are getting younger. We are bucking the trend with symphonies; it’s proof we are on the right track.”

Maestro Chen also believes that this performance and the other concerts in the new series “Rethink. Redefine. Reimagine,”  align well with our city’s vibe: “Maestro Freeman did not pick Chicago by accident. He knew Chicago stands for embracing innovative contemporary programming and for embracing what is new and daring!”

Chicago Sinfonietta vs. Mucca Pazza will take place on September 20 at Wentz Concert Hall in Naperville and September 22 at Symphony Hall.

Feature photo collage: Maestro Mei-Ann Chen

Mucca Pazza, photo courtesy of 8 Eye Photography

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