Chicago Opera Theater teamed up with the Refugee Orchestra Project to offer four performances overlooking Lincoln Park this past weekend, two performances each on Saturday and Sunday afternoons at the Chicago History Museum’s Uihlein Plaza. Matching up these two groups was natural to Lidiya Yankovskaya, as she holds leadership roles in both: she is music director of COT and artistic director of ROP.
Yankovskaya gathered a solid roster of instrumentalists — a string quartet plus double bass, piano (a portable electronic keyboard), and percussion. While they were certainly not an orchestra, together they made up a taut ensemble and performed a wide variety of music with flair and intensity.
All the music on the program was written by refugees, including the famous, such as Erich Wolfgang Korngold, and those just now early in their careers, such as Milad Yousufi. The program explained that “Refugee Orchestra Project’s performances focus on composers who represent our musical heritage, alongside those who define the present and future of our musical culture. All these composers have been able to flourish largely due to support from those outside their home nation.”
The works together created an intriguing and worthwhile hour of music for listeners, who were seated in “bubbles,” a group of chairs (typically two) significantly separated from other bubbles, with all listeners required to wear masks. The audience for each performance was capped at 100, but when I attended the second Saturday afternoon performance, I couldn’t help but notice folks in the park beyond the plaza. They stopped to take in the concert from afar with smiles of appreciation or looks of great concentration on their faces.
The concert opened and closed with music by Yousufi, described in the program as “the first Afghan-influenced western classical composer.” Born in 1995, Yousufi is a student at the Mannes School of Music. His work “Freedom” kicked off the afternoon. It is attractive music with sinuous melodies and inflected with various influences from south Asia and the Middle East. His music has strong color and propulsive strength. Yankovskaya led her small ensemble in a memorable performance.
Yousufi’s “Imaginary Peace” was the closing number, featuring Nina Mutalifu, a Uyghur soprano from China who will be joining the young artist program of Chicago Opera Theater for the 2020–21 season. She sang with confidence and vigor and brought a fine dose of drama to the passionate prayer for peace. Vadim Parpinos, a percussionist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and native of Ukraine, offered gorgeous playing on the Doumbek, an hourglass-shaped drum.
“Cadenza for the Once Young” is a short solo violin work by Gity Razaz (b. 1986), an American composer of Iranian origin. Victoria Moreira was the soloist, and she grabbed the music and never let go. She was particularly adept at expressing the yearning elements although the outdoor setting meant that some of the detailed soft playing was lost in the breeze and the ambient chirps and buzzes from park insects.
Mutalifu sang the Cradle Scene from Rachmaninov’s “Aleko” displaying a good sense of storytelling. Yankovskaya, whose primary interests as a conductor include Russian opera, was superb at managing the shifts in mood and tempo. Mutalifu brought dignified emotion to Korngold’s “Mariettas Lied” from “Die tote Stadt.” The ensemble’s controlled sound allowed her to let soar some lovely high notes that floated beautifully in the scent of flowers and grass.
The first movement of Donizetti’s String Quartet No. 18 was pert even as the string foursome dueled with the singing cicadas surrounding us all. The quartet then took on Bartok’s Romanian Folk Dances in an arrangement that included double bass. The music was enjoyable and well played, but seemed a bit thin with only five players. Yet the dance elements always came to the fore, and the joyful lightness of touch was pleasing and the energy was infectious
Soprano Amanda Majeski gave a polished and compelling performance of Chopin’s “Lithuanian Song” showing off her powerful and attractive lower register.
Majeski also brought bounce to the concert with a medley of Irvin Berlin tunes such as “Puttin on the Ritz,” “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” and others. Classical singers vary widely in their ability to engage with popular genres, and Majeski is one who has the flexibility to pull it off with great fun. The medley concluded with a gentle and understated performance of “God Bless America” which was heartwarming. I dashed to my notebook to record my disappointment that she didn’t end with a triumphant high note, only to find that I had been taken in by a false ending. A little reprise was followed by the big finish I was craving and Majeski offered a tremendously satisfying and uplifting conclusion.
It was a well-designed program of music which left the small crowd happy and content.
After the performance I had a chance to speak briefly with Karpinos, who told me that the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is looking at the possibility of live performances with audiences as early as late September. The idea being explored is for small ensembles made up of CSO musicians to play for physically distanced audience members (as the performance he just concluded was) in some of the large spaces in Symphony Center. This could be another exciting step in bringing live performances back to Chicago.