In Darkness We Rise- Chicago Sinfonietta celebrates hope at Mandel Hall

"In Darkness We Rise"; Chicago Sinfonietta in the gorgeous Mandel Hall at University of Chicago; photo by Chris Ocken
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On March 25, 2019, Chicago Sinfonietta presented In Darkness We Rise at Mandel Hall on the University of Chicago campus, a concert devoted to the concept of the phoenix rising from the ashes. The themes of love, loss, and unyielding hope in the midst of our darkest hours were explored through the musical storytelling of several composer/narrators, led by Maestro Mei-Ann Chen, with guest artist Twyla Robinson, soprano, and featuring Paul Zafer, violin, long the Sinfonietta’s concertmaster.

Chicago Sinfonietta Musical Director and Conductor Mei-Ann Chen. “In Darkness We Rise”


– Claude Debussy Clair de Lune, 1905

Claire de Lune, (“moonlight”), a demanding piece for performers to interpret and execute, was captured this night with a remarkable sense of magic and lyricism, leaving the audience touched with its beauty. This work embodies and evokes a gamut of emotions from gentle hopefulness through powerful heartbreak to reflection and an ultimate sense of redemptive peace

Opening in the key of D-flat Major with a dreamy gentle Andante tres expressif, the melody was magnified by repetition with chords. Building momentum, after a pause as if to draw breath, Chen led the Sinfonietta into the show-stopping fast section in a superb rendering of sound as of the patter of raindrops glistening on water, reaching up and to an enthralling crescendo before concluding with a reprise.

Concertmaster Paul Zafer, violin soloist, performs “The Lark Ascending”

– Vaughn Williams The Lark Ascending, 1921

This perennially popular British favorite contains numerous soaring moments from the shimmering violin solos most effectively played by the Sinfonietta and soloist to the open parallel chords connoting a threat as of darkness. Routinely described in elegiac terms, scholars agree the piece is “one of the supreme achievements of English landscape painting”. Pastoral in its overall sweep, it is a paean to the untroubled joys of nature exemplified by the call of the lark. 

The animated middle section, in particular, harks back to English folk music. The programmatic work is a meditation and a musical reflection of the poem with the same name by George Meredith; the composer selected a few lyrics of these, written at the beginning of the score. There’s a very strong correspondence between the words and the music that follows. 

Opening with a rising orchestral section, Zafer’s deeply felt and virtuoso violin solo conjured up the lark as it lifted on wings into the air, then devolving into robust folk sounds, before the coda/cadenza trills as though “lost in aerial rings”.

– Ilya Levinson Sevdah Medley, 2009

Levinson appeared on the podium and explained that Sevdah music is a traditional genre of folk tunes from Bosnia and Herzegovina. 

In this case, his 4-song medley was characterized by the typically slow or moderate tempos and intense, emotional melodies characteristic of these elaborate, emotionally charged and passionate tunes. There is a combination of Oriental, European, Gypsy and Sephardic elements that combine to imbue a sense of melancholy. 

Levinson has said, “In my music I convey the gamut of human emotions, describing the highs and lows of life—the tragedy and the comedy, the hope and dismay—contemplating the majestic beauty of nature as a contrast for the darkest corners of the soul.” The stirring songs performed attacca this evening truly seemed to represent an adventure in transformation.

Conductor Ilya Levinson introduces “Sevdah’s Medley” with Conductor Mei-Ann Chen

– Henryk Gorecki Symphony No. 3, Op. 36, 1976

 In 1992 a recording of Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3, subtitled the “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs,” shot to fame, eventually selling well over a million copies, and the hitherto unknown Polish composer’s work was heard on radio stations around the world. 

The piece was conceived as a reflection on 3 texts, one of them a prayer inscribed by a teenager on a cell wall of a Gestapo headquarters. Gorecki turned the disturbing laments into a moving symphony supported by conceptually simple yet propulsive surges of melody in 3 very slow movements, each featuring the sorrowful voice of a solo soprano- here, Twyla Robinson, known for her “ravishing vocal beauty”- over long held pulsing string statements.

The repetitive liturgically reminiscent sounds combined to form the sense of a dirge; interspersed by the intense delivery of the somber written text and the appropriate severe mien and corresponding stark, dramatic voice of Robinson, the last half of the program seemed to descend back into the cares of a tragic world.

 Also present on the stage and adding a powerful massed effect were students from the Merit School of Music and Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra. To an  extended standing ovation, the Sinfonietta and guest artists closed the evening, under a soft, hazy special effect which contributed to the serious, mystical mood.

Soprano Twyla Robinson with Maestro Mei-Ann Chen and Chicago Sinfonietta accept their ovation at the conclusion of Gorecki’s 3rd Symphony, “In Darkness We Rise” at Mandel Hall, Chicago

For information and tickets to all the fine programming of Chicago Sinfonietta, go to

All photos by Chris Ocken

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