Discover “The Dance of Life and Death” with the Chicago Sinfonietta


An article by Natalia Dagenhart for The Chicago Tribune.

“Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new,” said Steve Jobs, an American information technology entrepreneur and inventor, who died recently in 2011. Partially, his words explain why some of the oldest cultures in the world view death as an important and valuable part of life. However, if you want to learn about death, loss and transformation through the means of music, please consider attending the Chicago Sinfonietta’s annual Dia de los Muertos concert program called “The Dance of Life and Death”. This unforgettable event will take place at 8 p.m. on Saturday, October 29 at Wentz Concert Hall in Naperville and at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, October 31 at the Symphony Center in Chicago.

Considered one of the most diverse orchestras in the country, Chicago Sinfonietta will try to find answers to eternal questions that have concerned people for centuries and will change your fear of death into a feeling of gratitude for life and an understanding of transformation. This unique orchestra will use the power of music to remember Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), a 3000 year old Mexican ritual celebration of the dead, by presenting a joyful and slightly off-beat “The Dance of Life and Death” celebration that will feature evocative music and quirky silent films presented in partnership with Chicago Film Archives.

Chicago Film Archives will assist the orchestra in creating that scary, yet attractive, dance of life and death, and together they will swirl the audience in the waves of different moods, images and sounds. Chicago Film Archives were established in 2003 and have been popular for creating a regional film archive that conserves, promotes and exhibits moving image materials reflecting Chicago and Midwest history and culture. Images of different times, music composed long time ago and very recently – all this will create an unforgettable experience for everyone who will choose to attend Chicago Sinfonietta’s Dia de los Muertos celebration.

This concert program will become one of the most exciting and meaningful experiences of the year thanks to Mei-Ann Chen, one of America’s most dynamic young and talented conductors. Since 2011, Mei-Ann Chen has served as Music Director of the Chicago Sinfonietta and has infused the orchestra with her high-level energy, professionalism, enthusiasm and close connection with every musician in the orchestra and every person in the audience. In 2012, Mei-Ann Chen received the prestigious Helen M. Thompson Award granted to her by the League of American Orchestras at its national conference in Dallas. Ms. Chen’s name is now popular both nationally and internationally.

It is important to mention that this concert program will feature two Chicago premieres called Popol-Vuh and PizziCuban Polka written by award winning composer Carlos Rafael Rivera. This young, yet well-known and successful composer with Cuban and Guatemalan roots has a unique ability of incorporating a large diversity of musical influences into his captivating compositions that reflect his multi-cultural upbringing in Central America and the United States.

His Popol-Vuh composition is based on the Popol-Vuh story, which is the Mayan People’s Book of the Dawn of Life, and will present to the audience a musical explanation of the meaning of life and death. This piece consists of four Mayan scenes for orchestra that describe a story of gods that “were able to create, after three unsuccessful attempts, humankind,” alongside with the adventures of the anthropomorphic Hero Twin deities, their sacrifice in avenging their parents’ death, and their final rise, each as the Sun and Moon. Another of Rivera’s Chicago premieres, PizziCuban Polka, demonstrates the composer’s passion for cross-cultural folklore and music. It is modeled after Pizzicato Polka of Strauss with the influence of the Latino rhythm and energetic spirit and will satisfy every musical taste.

Besides the premieres, the orchestra will present a beautiful composition called Last Round created by Grammy award winning composer Osvaldo Golijov. Maestro Golijov also inherited cross-cultural musical influences being born in Argentina, raised surrounded by Jewish and klezmer music, studying classical chamber music and also the new tango of Astor Piazzolla that combines the elements of classical music and jazz.

Last Round was premiered in 1996, just a few years after Astor Piazzolla, the last great Tango composer, died. “I composed Last Round in 1996, prompted by Geoff Nuttall and Barry Shiffman. They heard a sketch of the second movement, which I had written in 1991 upon hearing the news of Piazzolla’s stroke, and encouraged me to finish it and write another movement to complement it. The title is borrowed from a short story on boxing by Julio Cortázar, the metaphor for an imaginary chance for Piazzolla’s spirit to fight one more time (he used to get into fistfights throughout his life),” said the composer.

Certainly, the Chicago Sinfonietta could not miss performing music of such famous and well-known composers as Beethoven, Mussorgsky and Saint-Saëns. Beethoven’s Coriolan was written to accompany Heinrich Joseph von Collin’s drama Coriolan, which was revived in Vienna’s Burgtheater in 1807. Critics say that this work represents not Coriolan, the Roman patrician who has been banished from his native city, but Beethoven himself. Although his stormy musical essay mirrors the action in the drama, it actually portrays Beethoven’s own tragic life and his controversial and melancholic personality.

Modest Mussorgsky, a famous Russian composer, one of the group known as “The Five” and an innovator of Russian music in the romantic period, composed Night on Bald Mountain being inspired by Russian literary works and a legend of a witches’ sabbath occurring on St. John’s Eve. This series of compositions was never performed during Mussorgsky’s lifetime, but in 1886, five years after Mussorgsky’s death, Rimsky-Korsakov published an arrangement of this work, and his version of Night on Bald Mountain achieved lasting fame.

Macabre by French composer Camille Saint-Saëns is a very popular piece that each of us heard many times without even realizing what it was. The audience will be carried away from reality by this beautiful composition and suddenly will witness skeletons and the spirits of the dead coming out to play on Halloween night. And then, the dance of death will swirl the spirits of the living in the beautiful waves of this great piece. Dia de los Muertos concert program will end with Sones de Mariachi, a piece composed by a unique Mexican composer Blas Galindo, whose music will become a great conclusion of the night.

If you are interested in attending Dia de los Muertos concerts, please contact Chicago Sinfonietta at 312-284-1554 or go online at Also, the tickets are available at the North Central College Box Office 630-637-SHOW (7469). The price range for both Wentz Concert Hall and Symphony Center is from $10 to $60 with box tickets at Symphony Center available for $99.

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