Illinois Philharmonic wraps its season with a double dose of Romeo and Juliet

Sun May 18, 2014 at 3:51 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

David Danzmayr conducted the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra’s final season program of Bernstein, Glazunov and Prokofiev Saturday night in Frankfort.

The Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra has had a big season. Led by its dynamic young music director David Danzmayr, the IPO made its Chicago debut at the Harris Theater last month with an ambitious program that included the belated American premiere of Alexander von Zemlinsky’s First Symphony.

On Saturday, the Philharmonic wrapped their season with a populist program—by Danzmayr’s adventurous standard—that was still notable for the strides the Austrian conductor has made in upgrading the quality of the southwest suburban ensemble in just two years.

There is still work to be done, notably more consistent woodwind playing and better horn musicianship than the blowsy and technically maladroit playing that remains the IPO’s Achille’s heel.

Yet the orchestra overall was more polished and cohesive and the lapses and tonal rawness that undermined previous performances were less apparent Saturday at Lincoln-Way North Performing Arts Center in Frankfort.

That improvement was immediately manifest in the opener, Leonard Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story. Danzmayr is setting a standard for other orchestras by including an American work on every program, and that laudable initiative will continue next season.

Danzmayr has clearly imbued the Illinois Philharmonic with a renewed spark and the orchestra played with imposing fire and intensity in Bernstein’s confection. Like his compatriot Carlos Kalmar, Danzmayr seems to have an innate feel for Bernstein’s genre-traversing idiom. He drew out the string playing in “Somewhere” and “I have a love” with  sensitivity and brought a delicate lilt to the gentle tango-like “Maria.”

But mostly, Danzmayr brought galvanic energy to the high-stepping dance episodes with firm rhythmic accents (and on-the-money finger snapping from the musicians) in the Prologue. With a dazzling stratospheric trumpet solo and fizzing energy from the Latin percussion, the Dance at the Gym went with thrilling vitality.

The semi-rarity of the evening was Glazunov’s Violin Concerto. If the composer is more remembered today for being Shostakovich’s teacher than for his own music, Glazunov’s concerto remains one of his delightful inspirations—chock full of tunes and snappy solo display in less than 20 minutes.

Anna Lee
Anna Lee

Just 18 years old, Anna Lee has already won top prizes in the Yehudi Menuhin and Tibor Varga competitions as well as other awards. The Korean-born violinist was most impressive in the lyrical moments, playing with a rich, singing line and tonal sweetness ideal for Glazunov’s melodies.

In the first-movement cadenza and some of the more virtuosic sections, Lee’s projection was less consistent and, while handled securely, the rollicking main theme of the finale felt cautious and could have used more bravura swagger. But Anna Lee is clearly a gifted musician with a bright future. Danzmayr and the orchestra provided alert and lively support.

Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet framed the evening nicely with Bernstein’s 1950s retooling of the same Shakespeare story. Danzmayr opted for a suite of the ballet’s most familiar excerpts, apart from the “Morning Dance,” here given a fleet and jaunty rendition.

The opening chord of “Montagues and Capulets” was punched out with massive sonic force and the ensuing excerpts were equally vividly characterized. Danzmayr consistently underlined the quirky scoring and sardonic quality, as in the “Minuet” and “Masks” sections. He also elicited string playing of hushed tenderness, notably in the finale of “Romeo at Juliet’s Grave” undermined somewhat by a wavery solo flute and unmuffled bronchial explosions from the audience.

The Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra’s 2014-15 season has not yet been announced.

Posted in Performances

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