Conductor Gisele Ben-Dor (Photo/J. Henry Fair)

Chicago Sinfonietta celebrates Dia de los Muertos, classically

For the third consecutive year, the Chicago Sinfonietta celebrates Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos) with its annual concert, which features works that celebrate our brief, but beautiful, life by Latin American and Spanish composers.

World-renowned Uruguayan guest conductor Gisele Ben-Dor, considered an expert in Latin American music, leads the orchestra — first in Chicago at the Harris Theater on November 1 at 7:30pm, followed by a performance in Naperville at Wentz Concert Hall on November 2 at 8pm. More than 1,500 people are expected to attend.

“We’ve been planning this for two years,” says Ben-Dor about the special Dia de los Muertos program. “Everything takes a lot of planning — a lot of detail for the sake of the audience…It will be a lot of fun.”

She says she gave the program a lot of consideration so she could provide the audience with music they might not have heard, including Mexican composers Arturo Márquez and José Pablo Moncayo.

“It’s a balance of some well-known music and less known,” says the Yale School of Music graduate, who has been conducting all over the world for nearly 30 years. “It’s a concert that’s very audience friendly.”

Even though Ben-Dor was born and raised in Uruguay, she now considers herself an American and resides in Bergen County, NJ, after having spent 12 years in Santa Barbara, Calif. She says she enjoys the idea of Dia de los Muertos because of its emotional context.

“It’s more connected with real people,” she says regarding the holiday, comparing it with Halloween.

She says the soloist won’t be able to make it, because of the effects of Hurricane Sandy, but she was able to find a very exciting piece to play in its place — a suite by an Argentine composer, Alberto Ginastera.

“‘Estancia’ — very lively rhythmic music for the most part, which shows life at a ranch in Argentina — cowboy life,” says Ben-Dor. “It’s one of the examples of Dia de los Muertos — you remember the fact they’re dead, but also as people who had a good time in this life.”

For Ben-Dor, conducting has always been spontaneously natural, and she says she knew since as early as 12 years old that was her calling in life. She says what she loves most is the ability to completely forget about yourself when giving a good performance.

“You’re there giving direction,” she says. “You have to communicate. You become the music that you’re conducting, and that is a trip. It’s an activity that absorbs you completely. It’s a magic carpet in my case.”

And she’s glad she made it to Chicago just in time.

“I left 24 hours before the storm,” says Ben-Dor, who got there just in time for rehearsal. “It’s really really luck. It’s a little like Dia de los Muertos. For a lot of people it’s a terrible thing, but for a lot of people it’s ‘look what I avoided’ — two sides of the same coin.”


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