Earlier this week, I went to the“Battle of the Bands and the Beers.” It was orchestral Chicago Sinfonietta facing off against punk marching band, Mucca Pazza, at the Chicago Symphony Center. There was also a beer tasting by Two Brothers Brewery.
I was there because of Mucca Pazza. I love them. I’m extremely fond of brass instruments (the tuba is my spirit animal) and love marching bands. Mucca Pazza is one of my favorite bands in Chicago. They compose their own music, wear mismatching band outfits, and they wander around the audience. You really never know what they are going to do in a show. I’ve seen them with My Brightest Diamond, a 100th birthday celebration for Studs Terkel. Wherever there is Mucca Pazza, good times are assured. And if that wasn’t enough, I also have a friend who is a cheerleader who wears the t-shirt “I heart scientists.” So I went to see Mucca Pazza on the Chicago Symphony Stage. This was a most excellent performance.
I had never seen nor heard of Chicago Sinfonietta before I got a random mailing about the concert. From its bio in the program, the orchestra seems to be an alternative to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. I think it strives to be more diverse in music. They don’t stick to the classical repertoire but branch out into other styles. Hence the joint show with Mucca Pazza.
The set list was quite unusual. All the songs seemed to be based on folk songs. The first set of songs was “English Folk Song Suite” by Vaughn Williams. As the title suggests, he incorporated British folk songs into this orchestral piece. Florence Price, who was the first African-American female composer to debut on the CSO stage in 1933, composed the second suite: “Dance of the Canebrakes.” The conductor noted that this might be the third time this piece has ever been performed. It was quite lovely. Benjamin Britten composed the third piece “Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, Op. 14.” The piece features various sections of the orchestra, like the violins, the brass, etc. They are supposed to battle each other. Apparently, while it’s intended to teach children about the orchestra, it’s really hard to play. I really liked the beginning and end, but I got lost in the middle. Alas.
And then it was the second act. Mucca Pazza crept on stage from all sides. Musicians shielded their faces from the audience with their horns, drums and pom poms. And then the music began to play. Half the band emerged from the piano elevator in the middle of the stage. What a lovely entrance! They played their classic “Holiday on Ice.” It was full of vim and vigor. It was great to have the band and orchestra both play. It added to the majesty and silliness. The cello section actually spun their cellos during the piece. Kudos for that! Then the cheerleaders began a falsetto version of “Brother John” or “Frere Jacques,” which was a fantastic bridge to Mahler’s “Excerpt from Symphony No. 1 in D Major.” In the piece, he turned this children’s song into a funeral dirge. Lovely. Then Mucca Pazza came back and played my favorite song “Rabbits and Trees.” Again, the stage was filled with dancing brass players. The song ended with someone’s head in a tuba. Who could ask for anything more?
And then there was the finale. It was Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. The Sinfonietta played the Russians, and Mucca Pazza was the invading French. I had not known that I wanted to see this but I’m glad that they met this unrecognized need. It was positively brilliant! The orchestra played their section, inspired by Russian folk songs, while Mucca Pazza members periodically appeared in the wings, on the balcony, even in the seats. During one vignette, members of the band traveled across the stage as if they were soldiers on their way to Russia. Or the bandleader, who has magnificent muttonchops, appeared randomly and glowered menacingly at the Sinfonietta. Several times a random band member ran across the stage holding a tiny canon. It was so wonderful that you should be sad that you missed it. Sadly, history was against them. Mucca Pazza all died at the end of the piece, falling down on stage and the balcony. But I believe that they won this battle regardless.
What a show! I can’t wait to see what Mucca Pazza has in store for us next.