Chicago Classical Review »» The Illinois Philharmonic opens the season with an American triptych
By Lawrence A. Johnson
As live music with a live audience returns to local stages, attention inevitably turns to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and lyric opera.
But a plethora of worthy suburban ensembles are also reopening their concerts to in-person audiences this month, including the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra, which kicked off its season on Saturday night in Palos Heights.
The increasingly familiar line of scrimmage of patrons scrambling for their vax documentation meandered towards the doorway of Ozinga Hall at Trinity Christian College. More serious was the fact that the IPO box office had broken down, which led to a polite but somewhat chaotic scene at Will Call. Executive Director Christina Salerno helped generously, hand-writing guest seating assignments and escorting some late arrivals to their seats. Even with the complications, the concert managed to start with only about ten minutes late.
Although billed as the ensemble of the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra, Saturday’s season opener offered only 13 players on stage and just nine string players for the first half. (Even the program note indicated a string orchestra for a work.) In his opening remarks, the engaging music director of the IPO, Stilian Kirov, promised that the orchestra’s roster would grow as it went on. of the season.
If anyone was disappointed with the lack of strength, it was not obvious on Saturday night as the performances drew enthusiastic ovations from the enthusiastic audience at the Illinois Philharmonic.
Under Kirov’s direction, the IPO has brought American music to the fore to a point that puts most other symphony ensembles to shame. So it was again in this opening season program offering three works from home with a real diversity of music and presentation.
The suddenly omnipresent Florence Price was represented with the Andante Moderato movement of her String Quartet, which opened the evening.
Led by Kirov, the well-balanced string ensemble (double quartet and double bass) brought out the folk lyricism of the charming main theme. There was a graceful flow into the faster gallop of the middle section and a soothing cover of the opening music. While the lavish rendition of the same work was performed by Riccardo Muti and the CSO three weeks ago, the intimacy of Price’s expression felt more naturally eloquent in this bedroom-sized rendition. .
Kirov has always championed the music of undead American composers and such was the case with the centerpiece of the evening, Eric Ewazen’s Down a river of time.
An oboe concerto aside from its name, Ewazen’s work inhabits a lyrical pastoral style with a nuance of melancholy – think of an American Gerald Finzi. While there isn’t much contrast in the three gently varied movements, Ewazen’s concert is well put together and infallibly appealing.
Naomi Bensdorf Frisch was the solo protagonist. The main oboist of the IPO played with ease and what appeared to be attention to the score. Yet while his playing was technically capable, it was also tasteless with little individuality or variation in color or dynamics. One suspects that a soloist with more personality would have found more charm in this score and would have made a more solid overall case. Kirov and the string ensemble brought more expressive light and shadow to their opportunities.
The evening ended with the song by Aaron Copland Spring of the Appalachians. In a notable departure, Copland’s famous ballet was performed in the full original score for 13 players and with the partnership of 14 dancers from the Joffrey Academy of Dance.
This mark of one-night collaboration rarely occurs, but for the most part the evening’s partnership has worked successfully, providing a rare opportunity to experience Copland’s familiar sheet music in the form it was conceived in and presented for the first time.
With the chamber orchestra assembled on the right side of the stage, Kirov conducted a performance which, once again, showed his innate sympathy for the American idiom. Its staging evoked the tender lyricism, rustic rhythms and loneliness of this score. Kirov was particularly inspired to bring out the power and darkness of the darker section towards the end of the ballet – taken from the sequel by Copland – which gives the music a richer and somewhat more tragic profile. Most of the IPO members played solidly, though the performance was hampered by choppy string intonation, swaying flute solos towards the end, and weirdly awkward piano playing.
The Terpsichorian element was more polished and cohesive. The performance forgoes the original Martha Graham choreography for a modern take on Yoshihisa Arai with Joffrey’s dancers all dressed in white.
While a deeper thread of Arai’s revisionist choreography remained largely impenetrable, the graceful movements of the dancers were always perfectly suited to Copland’s music. The violent seizure-like spasms and unintelligible screams that accompanied the dark passage mentioned above were particularly striking.
The 14 dancers of Joffrey Academy – the company’s training program for young artists – demonstrated impressive artistry of maturity and professional level in both their ensemble dance and their individual moments.
In his opening remarks, Kirov paid tribute to Fred Kuester, the orchestra’s longtime double bass who retired at the end of last season. The New Lenox resident has been a member of the IPO since its inception and has played every season for the past 43 years.
The Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra’s next concert will be at 7:30 p.m. on November 13 and will feature Mozart Sinfonia Concertante for winds and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8. ipomusic.org
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