A Dark and Stormy but Great Concert Weekend

David Danzmayr
David Danzmayr

It was a very interesting weekend of concerts for me.  First there was an excellent concert by the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra.  This was lead by David Danzmayr, the young Austrian (and now Naperville resident and home owner) music director in the midst of his second season with the IPO.


The program started off with “Comedia For almost 18th Century Orchestra" by contemporary composer, William Bolcom though the piece dates from the eclectic 70’s.  It would be interesting as a cultural experiment to measure the reactions and satisfaction of two audiences—one that was prepared by the conductor stating that this is a funny piece with the modernisms calculated to disrupt the proceedings (as per Maestro Danzmayr) vs. an audience that has no heads up and has to deal with the weird mix of stacked, dissonant chords, clustered hand-and-arm smashes on the piano keyboard, and other 20th century compositional techniques coming after passages of Mozartean, Papageno Pan-pipe calls, Don Giovanni off-stage minuets, and a robust Mendelssohnean tarantella.  This latter starts with a (presumably) deliberately banal theme in the clarinet.  When some riotous playing by the full ensemble (especially by Andy Simco on fortissimo timpani) was all-of-a-sudden halted by the return of the delicate, off-stage string trio playing a minuet, the audience broke out with laughter.   But this was in sympathy with the piece not at the expense of the piece.  Marilyn Bourgeois handled the piano part with great energy. Fine work was contributed by principal clarinet Trevor O’Riordan as well as principal horn John Fairfield dealing with some very exposed pianissimo notes at the end.  Just like in the second movement of the Beethoven 4th Piano Concerto, the wild beasts are tamed--this time by the gentle string playing rather than the piano--though the tarantella gets the final word.


French violinist, of Russian heritage, Alexandra Soumm made a sparkling Chicago-area debut as soloist in the 3rd Mozart Violin Concerto.  This was brisk, energetic playing with perfect intonation and very tastefully and limitedly applied vibrato to avoid a Romantic sound.  The soloist and conductor were perfectly aligned in this approach.  This was vigorous Mozart—not effete, powdered-wig music making.  Yet, the songful second movement and the gentle episode accompanied by plucked strings in the finale proved a relaxed contrast.  The cadenzas (most by David Oistrakh—Mozart didn’t leave any) were a little more technically involved than the concerto proper.  After a standing ovation, Ms Soumm then brought the house down a second time with an encore of the Paganini variations on Paisello’s La Molinara.  Click here for her Youtube performance.


The concert was completed by a performance of the Beethoven Symphony No. 6 (Pastoral) not performed by the IPO in the 25-year, Carmon DeLeone era.  Danzmayr’s approach is not a dreamy wandering in the pasture but a propulsive jaunt over hill and dale.  For someone like me who grew up with the Ormandy Philadelphia and the CSO Fritz Reiner recordings, this swift tempo still requires some getting used to.  Danzmayr’s timing for the movement is about 10:15 while Reiner takes 10:20.  But Danzmayr takes the first movement exposition repeat while Reiner doesn’t.  By comparison, David Zinman, who is known for his quick Beethoven tempos, is quite similar at 10:21.  Obviously timing and tempo are an individual choice, and the most important thing is that Danzmayr is always quite persuasive with his approach.  The second movement which Beethoven termed “The Scene by the Brook” is marked Andante molto mosso which means something like a walking tempo with much movement.  Danzmayr came in at about 11:10, Zinman at 12:00 and Reiner at 14:06.  Here, the IPO played beautifully for their music director—the woodwinds achieving special glory.  And while there may be less airiness and relaxation in the opening movements, the final three (yes, this is a five-movement symphony) were all one could ask for. The storm scene was especially exciting.  And Danzmayr achieved a continuing energy and interest in the “Thanksgiving” finale which is quite difficult to accomplish.


I was fortunate to follow the IPO concert the next day with a chamber concert by the Civitas Ensemble which is made up of CSO members, Yuan-Qing Yu, violin, J. Laurie Bloom, clarinet, Kenneth Olsen, cello as well as pianist Winston Choi who heads Roosevelt University’s piano faculty.  This concert was part of the distinguished Norton Building Concert Series where chamber concerts are presented in a 19th century building in historic Lockport in a beautifully appointed loft which seats about 150 people.  The concerts are always sold out, but one can contact Nick Yasillo, who curates the concerts, to see if there are any ticket turn backs on the concert day.  Actually, Sunday the 17th of November would have been the ideal day to check for these given that a tornado had touched down in Frankfort about an hour before the concert.  Yet, a majority of seats were still filled.  The opening piece was the Beethoven sonata for violin and piano op 12 No. 1.  This was a neat contrast to the historically-informed violin playing of Ms Soumm because, while still showing Classical-Era poise, Ms Yu played with a bright tone and a glowing vibrato.  And Mr. Choi didn’t particularly muffle the dynamics of his 9-foot Steinway.  Old fashioned maybe, but beautiful and perfectly coordinated playing like this was certainly appreciated by all in attendance. 


The next piece is one that I have thought of a lot lately, the Brahms Trio for Clarinet, Cello and Piano in A minor.  Eusebius Mandyczewski, a scholar and friend of Brahms, wrote of the trio that "It is as though the instruments were in love with each other."  The Civitas players absolutely made the love audible expressing the warm, autumnal--even elegiac--feelings that Brahms imparted in this piece which is among his last compositions.  I had been thinking a lot of this work because the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra is having a benefit concert on the 21st of April which will feature the Zemlinsky A-Minor Trio which was obviously modeled on the Brahms.  As a matter of fact, Brahms convinced his publisher, Simrock to print the Zemlinsky.  (The April performance by Trio Voce will be in the Zemlinsky arrangement for violin, cello and piano—not the original with clarinet.  Come to think of it, the Civitas Ensemble could play *both* versions on the same concert—probably something that only a Zemlinsky fanatic would find enticing.)


The next piece after the break was the Pulitzer-Prize winning composition by Paul Moravec entitled “Tempest Fantasy” for violin, clarinet, cello, and piano.   This is an extraordinary piece which portrays the major characters from Shakespeare’s play finishing with a movement called Tempest Fantasia which acts as a unifying finale.  Perhaps with the title we were tempting the gods.  In any event, shortly after the piece started, a transformer blew and we were shrouded in a gloomy darkness abated only by the glow from the players’ LED-illuminated music stands as well as the Ipad that Mr. Choi always plays from.  The players did not miss a beat (in every sense of that well-worn phrase) obviously not needing any visual contact with the various fingerboards or keys, but maintaining complete synchronization.  This was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that this audience shared—no visual distractions from the greatness of Moravec’s idiom which was contemporary yet immediately accessible.  When the lights came back on, one felt a mixture of thanks and regret.  The lights, however, were darkened quite quickly with another bang from the transformer.  So the whole second half was played in this atmosphere of aural intensity in the absence of visual distractions.  The final piece, “Breakdown Tango” by John Mackey, for the same forces, was something of an anticlimax after the Moravec, yet attractive in its way. 


This was truly a memorable concert weekend. 


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