Illinois Philharmonic opens season with a compelling new concerto

Sun Oct 20, 2013 at 7:06 pm

By Dennis Polkow

Pianist Terrence Wilson gave the local premiere of MIchael Daugherty's "Deux et Machina" Saturday night with the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra,
Pianist Terrence Wilson gave the local premiere of Michael Daugherty’s “Deux et Machina” Saturday night with the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra.

There was a sense of occasion surrounding the opening of the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra’s 36th season Saturday night at the Lincoln-Way North Performing Arts Center in south suburban Frankfort.

Not only was there the anticipation of IPO music director David Danzmayr returning for a second season after a triumphant inaugural season, but the young Austrian conductor was also making good on last year’s promise to program a piece of American music at every concert.

This was done in a big way right from the get-go with the first half of the evening devoted to the Chicago premiere of Michael Daugherty’s Deus Ex Machina. Terrence Wilson, the extraordinary pianist for whom the work was written, was the soloist and the composer was in attendance.

This is not one of those ten-minute conscience-assuaging nods to new music that characterizes so many orchestral commissions these days. This is a substantial half-hour piano concerto, significant enough that it had no less than five orchestras co-commissioning it.

The opening movement began with Wilson hunched over a lidless grand, plucking the low to mid-strings to suggest the emerging ambience of a steam engine getting started. A snare drum takes over and before long, there are trombone glissandi suggesting a horn.

As the aural train accelerates, the winds and strings join in, the sonority moving upward as the rhythm and dynamics intensify. The piece becomes increasingly chromatic, the piano part becoming more jagged as a piano cannot make a true glissandi as the orchestral instruments are often called upon to do.

The middle movement is the longest of the piece, an introspective depiction of the Lincoln funeral train that traveled from Washington to Springfield. “Taps” emerges in various guises both in its familiar bugle call taken by trumpet —with an unfortunate crack at a key moment–/and more evocatively in contemplative piano clusters. A series of cadenzas not only for piano, but for trumpet and cello as well before sleigh bells and church bells suggest destination arrival.

The finale begins as a boogie-woogie romp that morphs into a bluesy, Gershwin-esque violin section after a series of ostinato-like sections that bring the piece and the train journey to an abrupt close.

Wilson and the orchestra played with conviction and the piece was very well receive. The composer took a series of bows before Wilson emerged to play an encore of a whimsical Arcadi Volodos concert paraphrase of Mozart’s Turkish Rondo from the K. 331 piano sonata.

To pair an unfamiliar programmatic work of the 21st century alongside a popular programmatic work of the 19th century turned out to be an effective strategy one that provided an evening of satisfying contrast.

Whereas Daugherty emphasized propulsive rhythms and soundscapes, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scherherazade emphasizes melodic transformation and orchestral color. The element that the two works have in common is individual instruments being employed in a solo manner.

Some of those moments were more effectively realized than others but even the mediocre moments were valiant , and one could see the IPO players were being pushed and challenged in a good way. Danzmayr’s tempo choices were persuasive, and his balances effective, allowing nuances of the piece to emerge.

Concertmaster MingHuan Xu’s solo violin passages were particularly effective, never syrupy or over-sentimentalized with superb intonation.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Illinois Philharmonic opens season with a compelling new concerto”

  1. Posted Oct 22, 2013 at 4:57 pm by Richard Moutvic

    I thought the orchestra was superb, and the entire concert was most enjoyable, thanks to conductor, David Danzmayr and the entire ensemble. It was a fitting start to what should be an outstanding concert season.

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