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Playing to the Crowd

Art fights audience and manages a draw

Wednesday Journal

April 17, 1991

This appeared in the Comment section of Dan Haley’s excellent Oak Park weekly, Wednesday Journal. The published title was "“Sinfonietta’s razor-sharp precision slices through distractions.”  That's one way to put it, I guess. I ran the piece as an Illinois Times column on April 25 under the title, "Playing to the crowd," which I give it here.

Fastidious reader might wish to know that yesterday's Rosary College in River Forest is today's Dominican University.


They didn't do "Danny Boy" as an encore, which may have earned the orchestra an extra bit of appreciative applause from an audience that by then didn't want to hear anything played with a brogue. It was nearing the end of a long St. Patrick's Day weekend when the Chicago Sinfonietta tuned up for the last of this season's concerts at Rosary College. The Sinfonietta is one of Chicago's newest ensembles, and already one of its more admired. This is not always a guarantee of quality—Chicago loves the Bears too—but at least the conductor of this team didn't try to sell us Chevies between numbers. [Out-of-towners should know that this is a Mike Ditka joke.]


Going to concerts these days is an undependable pleasure for reasons that have nothing to do with music. The manners of the U.S. concert-goer makes going to hear Mozart like going to the movies, even at such decorous venues as Rosary College. A symphony performance in Springfield this winter was stopped in mid-movement by the conductor, who chastised two conversationalists who came in with the valet parking crowd. Audiences used to boo the musicians; today the musicians are booing the audiences.


Nothing so untoward marred this, the Sinfonietta's last concert of the current season at Rosary, where it is in residence. (The Sinfonietta will play one more concert at Orchestra Hall on May 15.) Sure, by the second half people had mastered the trick of making the reclinable seats squeak, and the usual coughers has crawled from their sickbeds to attend. They were joined by  some of the rest of us after the intermission; the doors to the lobby were propped open during the break, admitting great streams of tobacco smoke into the hall. The smoke created a charmingly authentic pub atmosphere in the auditorium, although it would take more than a few rounds of Harp to turn Bartok into a sing-along.


One dutiful mother patiently instructed her t-shirted son in the art of unwrapping a cellophane-wrapped snack v-e-r-y slowly. For a minute or two during the Bartok I  feverishly fingered the big rubber band I had in my coat pocket. I had a clear shot at the back of his head, but I worried that the soloist, hearing him squawk, might mistake him for a disapproving critic and abandon the stage. Besides, Mom looked capable of finishing the Bartok using me as a bow. I like quiet during concerts but I'm not a radical on the subject.


The irritations of the few would not have mattered if the music not been so fine. The 32-member ensemble played with precision and balance. The "Romanian Rhapsody" is a famous show‑off piece for an orchestra, and the Sinfonietta tossed it off with verve. (A gorgeous ten-year-old in front of me beamed at her mother at the end of it and said over the applause, "I liked that one!" which is the whole point of taking kids to concerts.)


The rhythmically demanding "An American Port of Call" by Adolphus Hailstork was a late substitution; perhaps as a result, it sounded under-rehearsed, with the players doing more reading than playing. When the Trib's John Von Rhein heard the Sinfonietta and soloist Tian Ying play Franck's "Symphonic Variations for Piano and Orchestra" he used words like polished, sparkling, refinement, and lyric, which shows that even the Tribune gets some things right.


According to the program notes, the Sinfonietta has two purposes. In addition making music, the orchestra aims to "promote racial and ethnic diversity on all levels, from Board and staff to audience and orchestra members." Sophisticated whites were never the only audience for the classics but they are by far the largest one. Orchestral music in the U.S. in particular has become a hobby of the educated elites of the monied, mostly conservative establishment. (On the North Shore they know their Tchaikovsky as well as they know their capital gains rates and for the same reason: Both are music to their ears.)


One learns to be wary of arts groups with political programs, but in this case art and politics serve each other well. A commitment to musical diversity means scheduling seldom‑heard works by people who are not Germans. Some believers of the Bach-Mozart-Beethoven trinity would consider the Sinfonietta's choice of a work by the Belgian Franck to be open-minded to the point of promiscuity.


A commitment to musical diversity also means showcasing soloists such as the up-and-coming Chinese pianist Ying and the been-top-for-twenty-years violist Marcus Thompson, who has appeared as soloist and guest with most of the major orchestras and string quartets in the U.S. The Sinfonietta's conductor and music director is Paul Freeman, who worked his way up to River Forest standards by conducting and recording in London, Zagreb, Dallas, Detroit, Helsinki, Cleveland, and New York.


The number of virtuosi from Asia have convincingly dispelled the notion that you have to be European to play European music. Or listen to it. The Sinfonietta boasts a "director of audience development," an "audience development consultant," and an "audience development assistant." Audience development presumably means persuading people that going to an orchestra concert does not doom one to sitting next to bankers snoring through Brahms.


Freeman's programs help. Classical music is not usually thought of as "ethnic" in the same way that, say, jazz or blues is. But Sunday's Sinfonietta program included works by Bartok and Enescu (Hungarian and Romanian, respectively) whose writing was based on those countries' melancholy and rhythmically complex traditional music. (Bartok in fact would be remembered as a musicologist if he'd never written a note.)


It all won a rousing endorsement from the audience. (There were a few empty seats, no doubt because some of the absent regulars were attending St. Patrick's Day seminars and taking their culture by the glass.) For a brief moment I thought I had another shot at the wrapper-crinkling boy in the lobby—a rubber band upside his head would have added to the diversity of his musical experience all right—but a middle-aged nun stood in the line of fire.


I spent the walk brooding about the differences between the artists and the audiences of this world. Beethoven would have plunked that kid, nun or no nun, for Music's sake. ●




John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

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The Encyclopedia of Chicago


The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

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A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois


Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives


Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum


The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.


I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

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The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

History on the Fox

An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than

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A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

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SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

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The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
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