A Symphony for Cell Phones

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Attendees of the Chicago Sinfonietta's 20th anniversary season performance on Oct. 1 and 2 will be asked to do something unusual: turn on their cell phones. Quirky chimes, song melodies and ring tones will be the concert's opening notes.

A Sample of the Symphony

AUDIO: Hear a ring tone medley that is joined by the Chicago Sinfonietta performing Beethoven. The project was conceived by Maestro Paul Freeman, left

The composer of the World Premiere of Concertino for Cell Phones and Orchestra, David Baker, a professor of music at Indiana University, says he wanted to illustrate how cellular phones create both order and disorder in our society. "All man-made devices can be used for good and for bad," says Baker, who has been nominated for both a Pulitzer Prize and a Grammy. He adds that while cell phones are great for keeping in touch and getting help in emergencies, they're also very disruptive. The orchestra will alternate between using the cell phones melodiously and as interrupting, annoying rings.

A 15-minute tutorial will instruct audience members to follow the red-light and green-light cues for their phones before the concert opens with "Redes," a piece by Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas. Green light means turn your phone on and/or play you ringtone; red means let the orchestra take charge. Chiming in with the Sinfonietta will be two accomplished young musicians: pianist Alexander Kobrin from Moscow, performing Franz Liszt's Piano Concerto No.2 in A major, and violinist Melissa White playing Max Bruch's Violin Concerto No.1 in G minor.

Baker spent five sleepless weeks conceptualizing the concert. He says he cannot control what ring tones people have, or whether all audience members will follow the lighting cues, but he can create spatial relationships by having individual sections respond to different lighting cues. "The premise is chaos versus order," says Baker.

Founded by Maestro Paul Freeman, the Chicago Sinfonietta — the most racially diverse orchestra in the country, according to a recent survey — has long struck a chord with fans of innovative classical music. "We've done some pretty wacky things," says executive director Jim Hirsch. "You haven't heard anything until you've heard thirty steel drums banging simultaneously with an orchestra." Hirsch says the Sinfonietta had also hosted concerts with bagpipes, and once featured an Indonesian gamelan orchestra, using gongs and mallet-struck instruments. Two years ago, the Sinfonietta collaborated with alternative rock band Poi Dog Pondering in a "remix and re-invention" of Dvorak's "New World" Symphony. The concert was so popular that the Sinfonietta's coming season will again pair the band with the orchestra for a performance of Bizet's Carmen.

Baker says he hopes the cell phone concertino will reinvigorate symphonies and have fun. "Sometimes we take everything so seriously that we forget there's a real world out there that's not life and death," he says, adding: "There's nothing more deadly than a passive audience."