Lake Forest Symphony strings prove rich and resplendent in varied program
“Where are the brass?” asked one late-arriving patron surveying the stage in Grayslake.
Indeed, it was a string orchestra lineup for the Lake Forest Symphony’s penultimate program of the season, performed Saturday night at the James Lumber Center in the far north suburb. But so rich and involving were the performances led by Vladimir Kulenovic that even wind and brass fanciers surely left satisfied.
The Lake Forest Symphony clearly has a good thing going with Kulenovic, who was appointed music director in 2014 and had his contract extended four more years through 2020. In addition to his amiable verbal program notes, the tall, charismatic conductor drew idiomatic, responsive and strikingly lustrous playing from the Lake Forest strings throughout the evening.
Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis led off the evening. The Lumber Center, on the campus of College of Lake County, is an excellent concert venue, but the bright immediacy of the acoustic mitigated against the work’s ecclesiastical atmosphere. Despite the lack of distanced ambient glow, Kulenovic was clearly in synch with this uber-English score and led a well-paced reading. Apart from a brief, yet jarring moment of violin ensemble going awry in the final section, the Lake Forest strings played with impressive refinement and lovely, burnished tone. The warm, organ-like textures of the lower strings and polished playing of the front-desk players in the quartet passages were especially notable.
Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 1 was an offbeat choice for a string program and benefited from an equally offbeat soloist, Ilya Yakushev. The Russian pianist showed himself a crack pianist as well as a character with a unique stage demeanor. Yakushev often seemed to be acting out the music as much as playing it–smiling at the ceiling and out at the audience as he played and turning his back on them to watch and listen to the orchestra. In the final movement when the prominent obbligato trumpet plays a loopy tune, Yakushev turned to listen, made a face and pretended to wave off the brass soloist dismissively before responding with a crashingly dissonant piano chord.
Despite the theatrics, Yakushev could back it up with a sturdy technique, even though his frantic tempos at times garbled the solo sections. Still, the Russian pianist was clearly in touch with the essence of his compatriot’s concerto. He conveyed the mordant and slyly satiric qualities of the opening Allegretto and brought apt, spare and forlorn expression to the Lento.
David Inmon proved just as impressive and more disciplined in the prominent trumpet role. The Lake Forest Symphony principal played with bright, gleaming tone and faultless technique, keeping pace with the excitable Yakushev every step of the way. Taken at a lightning tempo, the two soloists’ bravura in the madcap final section was exhilarating. Yakushev’s bursts of acceleration made life interesting for Kulenovic, yet the conductor and Lake Forest strings managed to take it in stride and provide attentive support.
Written in 1977, Arvo Pärt’s Fratres is a key work in his oeuvre, one of the Estonian composer’s first compositions to mark a shift toward his tintinnabulatory style of monastic spirituality.
Pärt’s various arrangements of this popular work are legion. Yet hearing the version for percussion and string orchestra on the same program as the Vaughan Williams Fantasia made one realize what a large debt Fratres owes to the earlier work in its style, the contour of its themes and even its phrase lengths and dynamics. Here too, one would have liked a wider dynamic range at times, but Kulenovic led a worthy and atmospheric performance.
The evening closed with Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings. Though it may be an almost obligatory work for this type of program, there was nothing routine about the performance. Directed by Kulenovic with great ardor and sympathy, the Lake Forest performance was incisive, dramatic and uncommonly fresh with resplendent string tone. Indeed it made one appreciate anew what an ingenious masterwork of string writing Tchaikovsky’s Serenade is.
Perhaps the rather brisk waltz could have used a more affectionate touch but otherwise Kulenovic’s tempos and direction were unassailable. The opening statement was taut with imposing weight and the burnished, tensile strings sounded ideally dark and Russian. The Elegie movement was especially inspired–Kulenovic led the surging ebb and flow of this music with consummate skill, drawing luxuriant tone and bringing out the deep vein of feeling in this music. The playing in the finale was not immaculate with more violin lapses en route, but the drive and vitality of the performance provided an exuberant finale to the work and the evening.
The program will be repeated 2 p.m. Sunday. lakeforestsymphony.org
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