Melissa White has lost count of the number of times she has performed with the Chicago Sinfonietta. Founder Paul Freeman took her under his wing as a precocious preteen violinist, her mother driving her from Lansing, Michigan, to the Chicago Institute of Music for lessons.
Today, she is the founding violinist of the Harlem Quartet, a professor at New York University and a former winner of the prestigious Sphinx competition whose performances take her all over the world.
On May 14 and 16, she will return to her old stomping ground for Sinfonietta’s ‘Limitless Horizon’ event to perform ‘The Butterfly Lovers’, a 1959 violin concerto co-written by Chen Gang and He Zhanhao that became the one of the first touchstones of traditional Chinese. and classical European stylistic fusion.
“It’s like coming back with the family to play,” White says of the Sinfonietta.
Except there is a twist. White will perform the concerto in a dress specially designed for the occasion by local artist Carley Brandeaux. Like a splitting chrysalis — or like the lovers of cursed butterflies who turn into butterflies at the end of the tale — the garment changes shape over the course of the concerto.
Brandeaux appeared on Sinfonietta’s radar after winning a Luminarts Fellowship in 2018 for her studio work at the School of the Art Institute. There she studied with renowned artist Nick Cave, the subject of an MCA retrospective opening on the same day as the Sinfonietta concert. Before moving to Chicago from North Carolina, Brandeaux specialized in sculpture but found her calling designing pieces for the human form, beginning with portable, rolled wooden artwork.
“It’s kind of a dream order for me. And I wanted it to change a lot through the performance,” says Brandeaux.
Her dress design for White comes from a unique blend of linen and rayon made to her specifications at The Weaving Mill in Humboldt Park, run by textile artist Emily Winter.
“I choose these greens, these yellows, these browns and I put them on the loom, then she helped me find this weaving structure which allowed us to play with the gradients,” explains Brandeaux, showing falls in his Irving Park studio.
Sewn on the other side of the mix – and what the audience only gradually notices at first – is hand-painted silk. The colors and pattern evoke the orange and tawny wings of the American Painted Lady, a butterfly native to the Chicago metropolitan area.
Unless you’re an insect enthusiast, you’ve probably confused the American Painted Lady with the more recognizable monarch, at least at a glance. It is a recruit that Brandeaux will not make anytime soon, thanks to the hours of lepidopterological studies that she devoted to the Sinfonietta commission.
“Now when I’m on the go, I’m able to recognize different butterflies thanks to this research,” she says.
White says the idea for the performance was pretty much fully formed when musical director Mei-Ann Chen pitched it to him at Sinfonietta’s 2019 gala. But, of course, the pupal stage of the project turned out to be longer than expected.
“It was originally supposed to happen in 2020, then we tried to do it again last season.” White laughs. “The third time is the charm.”
Coincidentally, the delayed Sinfonietta concert comes just weeks later a Guardian column last month, which criticized classical music’s typically monastic approach to fashion. Author Leah Broad’s argument that a soloist’s costume can – and indeed should – be considered part of their performance has sparked heated debate among classical music fans. The suite by soprano Rachel Nicholls letter to the editor criticized Broad heart cry for unduly overwhelming women, who, unlike men, don’t have the luxury of a default option. (See: tuxedos and black suits.)
Regardless of gender, a number of prominent soloists have gone public with their designer collaborations. Leif Ove Andsnes — who doubled as pianist and conductor on Chicago Symphony Orchestra programs last month when director Riccardo Muti contracted COVID-19 — is a noted costume sucker. ‘Issey Miyake. Driven by her own youthful passion for classical music, designer Jenny Lai creates what she calls “performance clothing” for stars like violinists Jennifer Koh and Leila Josefowicz, bass-baritone Davóne Tines and flautist Claire Chase. Perhaps more distinctly, Vivienne Westwood has been the exclusive draper of pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet for 20 years.
Next weekend’s concerts will mark the first time White has worn a bespoke garment on stage. Even so, she says she often ties her attire to her solo programs, if the shoe fits her (pardon the expression). Recently, during a streaming concert with the Albany Symphony, she carried out Violin Concerto No. 2 by George Tsontakis in an elegant cobalt robe, selected for its resemblance to the deep blue of the Greek flag.
“I thought it would be perfect to wear this blue for a piece by a Greek (American-born) composer who is very strong in his identity. And when I do Mozart, I envision a full skirt,” White says. “I think about the piece I’m doing as well as the experience I want the audience to have as they watch me perform it on stage.”
But this time, that creative vision is entirely Brandeaux’s. White is returning to Chicago for her fourth and final fitting this week, at which time the two will finalize the flow of dress transformations — four so far, and counting.
“I want her to go wild with what she has in mind. I’m open to anything,” White says.
All you say?
Peering over the dress in her studio, Brandeaux pats a tenacious ruffle of fabric on her side. “I think I might add some sort of cape, actually.”
“Limitless Horizon” also includes the world premieres of Michelle Isaac’s “Moshe’s Dream” and Derrick Skye’s “To Be A Horizon”. 8:00 p.m. May 14 at Wentz Concert Hall at North Central College, 171 E. Chicago Ave, Naperville, tickets $17-$62; 7:30 p.m. May 16 at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave., tickets $17-$101 at (312) 284-1554 and chicagosinfonietta.org/horizon/
Hannah Edgar is a freelance writer.
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