Grantee Spotlights

They Got NEXT — Chicago Sinfonietta Celebrates 35 Years

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During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Chicago Sinfonietta, like so many organizations, was forced to reimagine itself, pivoting programming and performances to a fully virtual space.

Despite obvious challenges, the shows went on. And the community engagement continued.

CEO Blake-Anthony Johnson, a former concert cellist, was hired in 2020 just prior to the lockdown to head the nationally recognized Illinois-based orchestra and acclaimed cultural leader that has championed diversity, equity, and inclusion for the last 35 years. Since joining the organization, Johnson has worked to expand its reach by promoting a continued investment in belonging & accessibility — building community through the Sinfonietta’s core values around cultural inclusivity and performances of the highest caliber. That engagement, he says, is what has set the Sinfonietta apart as an innovative and inclusive cultural powerhouse for more than three decades.

Chicago Sinfonietta CEO Blake-Anthony Johnson. Courtesy of Chicago Sinfonietta.

The world is reopening and people are going “back outside” — just in time for the Sinfonietta’s 35th season which kicks off this weekend with concerts on Saturday, September 17 at Wentz Concert Hall in Naperville and September 19 at Symphony Center in Chicago. The concerts — Chicago Sinfonietta NEXT — are billed as a celebration of the last 35 years and a forward look to the next 35 and beyond. The season continues through May 2023.

“I think our 35th season will be a victory lap celebration of our new programs and our brand refresh, a new way of thinking about programming and audience engagement, and building on the digital equity started during the pandemic when we were 100 percent virtual,” Johnson says. “We were amazed at how many folks, not just here in Chicago but around the world, tuned into our programming.”

Since its 1987 founding by Paul Freeman, who also served as music director for 24 years, Chicago Sinfonietta has positioned itself as a “defiantly different kind of orchestra” where accessibility, inclusion, promotion and advocacy for diverse and early-career musicians was always centered. Its well-known fellowship program, which Joyce supports, has served more than 80 musicians.

“We have this dual role—we’re very much an orchestra and an organization that is a public servant to the city, but Chicago is also a really perfect kind of laboratory for a lot of the issues that other orchestras around the country face,” Johnson says. “So we’re often seen as this model and ‘proof of concept’ for how we can do things better.”

Dubbed “the city’s hippest orchestra,” the Sinfonietta has also continued to strengthen its community ties with a number of programs designed to expose its broad repertoire, led by current musical director Mei-Ann Chen, to as many Chicagoans as possible. Sinfonietta in your Neighborhood, for example, is a partnership that brings the orchestra, along with young musicians and special guests, to South and West side neighborhoods in Chicago. The wildly popular “Pay What You Can” ticket program has been adopted in 11 other states, Johnson says, and The RASA Project uses music as a healing mechanism for students at a juvenile detention center on the West side.

Chicago Sinfonietta in Your Neighborhood program, Back of the Yards. Courtesy of Chicago Sinfonietta.

“How we approach community relationships is really particular. We don’t come to neighborhoods or communities and say ‘this is culture, we’re gonna give to you’ – it doesn’t start that way. It’s more like what can we learn from you and how can we co-curate together given our resources and our collective strengths and talents.”

About The Joyce Foundation

Joyce is a nonpartisan, private foundation that invests in evidence-informed public policies and strategies to advance racial equity and economic mobility for the next generation in the Great Lakes region.

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