Music minus one: Cost-saving maestro move contributes to rough night by the Sinfonietta

Wed Mar 30, 2011 at 7:53 am

By Dennis Polkow

Terrance Gray conducted the Chicago Sinfonietta at Orchestra Hall Monday night.

The penultimate program in the season-long farewell salute to retiring Chicago Sinfonietta founder Paul Freeman had a curious and unexplained absence Monday night at Symphony Center: Paul Freeman.

According to Sinfonietta executive director Jim Hirsch, the decision was made to eliminate Freeman’s appearance Monday night — he was slated to conduct only a single work — as a cost-cutting measure. Hirsch emphasized that Freeman was fine with the decision and that the outgoing music director’s health was not the issue.

That left guest conductor Terrance Gray to lead the entire “Generation Next” program and put him in the awkward position of acting as host for an evening that was designed to spotlight Freeman in the role of master of ceremonies introducing a young group of soloists.  A founding member of the violin section of the Chicago Sinfonietta where he still performs, Gray is also associate conductor of the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestras.

Gray, who opened the program with Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, has an erratic podium style with arm gestures that make for ambiguous communication between conductor and performers. That lack of clarity led to flabby ensemble Monday, especially in the strings which, even in unison passages, were occasionally scrappy and out of tune.

None of this was helped by the fact that the first soloist of the evening, 17-year old violinist Clayton Penrose-Whitmore — who played with a confidence well beyond his years — had not properly tuned his instrument,  which led to some wincing solo passages during the Violin Concerto by the 19th century Afro-Cuban composer Jose Silvestre White.

Sonia Mantell wisely took a lesson from the incident and carefully tuned her cello onstage with each section of the orchestra before her rendition of the Fauré Élégie for Cello and Orchestra.  Happily, the performance was indeed in tune, but Mantell’s tone and timbre were so thin that her solo lines often failed to convincingly carry, unaided by Gray’s overpowering orchestral balances.

Things fared better during Mantell’s second piece, José Bragato’s tango-imbued romp Graciela y Buenos Aires, but it was Jeremy Jordan’s traversal of the Grieg Piano Concerto that managed to rescue an otherwise mediocre musical evening.

Jeremy Jordan

Jordan took the old-school approach with this warhorse: big sound, Lisztian Romanticism, over-pedaled cadenzas, yet little of the transparency or poetry that Evgeny Kissin revealed in the work during his CSO performances last week. Still, given all that had preceded it, Jordan’s pianism and professionalism — which managed to hold things together even when support from the podium was minimal — supplied a welcome and needed energy boost to a decidedly wayward evening.

Posted in Performances

4 Responses to “Music minus one: Cost-saving maestro move contributes to rough night by the Sinfonietta”

  1. Posted Mar 31, 2011 at 11:16 am by John Foreman

    It’s obvious that the writer this has no concept of the conductor’s role as it pertains to precision in string section playing. Good section ensemble, in both pitch and rhythmic precision, is not affected (for better or worse) by conducting technique.

  2. Posted Mar 31, 2011 at 11:50 am by Mark

    Kissin is about 40 years and a seasoned professional musician. Jordan is 21 and a rising star/student at the conservatory. How do you compare the two. That being said, perhaps comparing Jordan to Kissin tells us that Jordan must be quite a musician indeed.

  3. Posted Apr 02, 2011 at 11:45 am by Rita Simó, DMA

    I strongly disagree with Mr Polkow’s review.
    Mr. Gray’s opening comments put the evening into perspective, illuminating what we could expect during the evening from a group of soloists diverse in age and mostly limited concert experience. We appreciated Gray’s constant contact with the inexperienced solists as well as his dynamic adjustments, softening the orchestra so as not to override Mantell’s weak tone and encouraging the orchestra to match Jordan’s bravado tone. The audience response suggested their appreciation for the way in which the novices were supported to do their best with their emerging talents.

  4. Posted Apr 03, 2011 at 1:24 pm by Margie Yassen

    Dear Mr. Polkow,
    I strongly disagree with your review of this concert; your presence at this performance is doubted by many, as your perception of it was vastly morphed into a self-made, substandard composition. I doubt your musical qualification to intentionally denounce the ability of the young musicians and Mr. Gray, who all shared aesthetic pieces with the audience; furthermore, I doubt your musical integrity and shudder at the audacity you have to criticize the nearly phenomenal performance of pupils who possess an unfathomable amount of natural talent, drive for excellence, and incomparable work ethic. How many teenagers place first in their state on their instrument? How many are accepted into the most prestigious musical institutions in the country, those of which only a few can only dream of attending? How many teenaged soloists match the general playing ability of those in the top orchestras in Illinois, such as the Chicago Sinfonietta or the Elgin Symphony Orchestra? From your critique, one can assume that those with this capability, who are on the road to a professional musical career and meet the above qualifications, are substandard and belittled within the musical community. Where has mutual respect and enjoyment of creating music for the sake of loving it gone? It seems as though you, Mr. Polkow, believe that playing in an orchestra, band, or choir is only worthwhile if the participant possesses the ability to perform with the top ensembles in the world. It seems as if your honorable expertise, originating from Oakton Community College, deems you as superior to those who have been studying music for their whole lives and, ultimately, at the finest musical institutions in the world. I thank you for your shared perspective, however, I unhesitatingly denounce it on behalf of the hundreds of charmed and astounded listeners in the audience on Monday night.

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