Irish Chamber Orchestra plays with drive and devotion at Mandel Hall

Sat Oct 29, 2011 at 6:55 pm

By Michael Cameron

The Irish Chamber Orchestra performed Friday night at Mandel Hall

The Irish Chamber Orchestra visited Mandel Hall Friday at the University of Chicago as part of their eight-city US tour, bearing a program of four works of varying notoriety, all presented with palpable devotion and an unrelenting sense of purpose and drive.

It was fitting that the orchestra and conductor Gérard Korsten choose legendary American pianist Leon Fleisher as soloist in Prokofiev’s Concerto No. 4. The work requires only the left hand, and Fleisher himself was limited to such repertoire for many years following a neurological affliction that rendered two fingers of his right hand immobile. Since that time he has revived the small but notable corner of literature commissioned by Paul Wittgenstein, a pianist who lost his right hand as a soldier on the eastern front of WWI.

Leon Fleisher

Prokofiev reigned nearly supreme in his day as a composer of concertos, but his record was somewhat tarnished by contemporary incomprehension of this work. That delayed the premiere of the Fourth Concerto until several years after his death.

The work combines many of his well-known traits with a vaguely French neo-Classical interest in clarity and economy, characteristics deftly exhumed by soloist and orchestra. The 83-year-old Fleisher didn’t quite catch fire in the outer movements as quicker passages varied in precision and cleanliness. Yet the two slower inner movements were a marvel of probity, and Prokofiev’s sardonic aspect and dark humor were skillfully rendered.

Both here and in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 there were moments when the ICP’s reduced forces couldn’t quite muster the requisite grandeur only a full-sized orchestra can generate. Yet Korsten’s reading of the symphony held many pleasures, revealing a myriad of details that seldom reach the ear in large modern halls.

As in all Classical-era repertoire, the orchestra approached Beethoven with a nod to historically informed practices, wielding minimal vibrato, bracing tempos and clipped articulations. The brisk pace of the second movement linked its famous small motives into larger chunks, and the scherzo zipped by with uninterrupted vigor. Even concertmaster Katherine Hunka’s broken string in the finale couldn’t impede Korsten’s headlong dash to the final bars.

The most convincing playing came in the program opener, Haydn’s Symphony No. 96 (The Miracle). Rarely does a minuet leave the strongest impression on an audience, but the Hyde Park faithful was won over by Dan Bates’ sprightly rendering of the composer’s impish, high wire oboe solo.

Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin’s somber TERMON was created as a memorial of the 10th anniversary of 9/11, and its simple design features a mournful wail of Uileann pipes (the Irish relative of Scottish bagpipes) over a sustained cushion of strings. The work’s unvarnished beauty was a soothing tonic for an audience jaded by Hollywood’s tacky distortions of this noble tradition. A youthful Pádraic Keane was the expressive soloist.

Posted in Uncategorized

Leave a Comment