Haydn provides the highlight in Chicago Philharmonic program

Mon Nov 17, 2014 at 1:59 pm

By Gerald Fisher

Joel Smirnoff conducted the Chicago Philharmonic Sunday in Evanston.
Joel Smirnoff conducted the Chicago Philharmonic Sunday in Evanston.

The Chicago Philharmonic under Joel Smirnoff brought a short but substantial program to Nichols Hall in Evanston Sunday afternoon. The results varied but the audience was sent home with a first-class performance of Haydn’s “Drum Roll” Symphony, which featured some spectacular timpani playing by Robert Everson. Short pieces by Rossini and Mozart opened the program and Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915, with Japanese soprano Asako Tamura, was the ambitious main work on the first half.

Rossini’s short overture to The Silken Ladder was handled briskly and dynamically with stylish solo turns by the winds and a solid string performance giving heft to the orchestral sections. This set the stage for a run-through of Zerlina’s arias from Don Giovanni featuring Asako Tamura, whose performance was ingratiating and sweet-toned.

The soprano was more challenged by the Barber work, which requires impeccable diction to convey the poetic prose of James Agee’s text and its emotional thrust. Orchestrally, the Philharmonic players were excellent in the atmospheric interludes and in the buildup toward the end of the piece. However, Tamura didn’t provide the verbal clarity needed to convey the drama of the words, leaving the audience groping for the inner meaning of this beautiful score.

The second half of the program was filled by an exciting take on one of the mature Haydn’s most original works: his Symphony No. 103, the Drumroll. With the percussionist taking the unaccustomed role of soloist, the opening flourish of timpani is surprising and refreshing. This is followed by a dark section on the lower strings, which opens into an ebullient orchestral passage underlined by the timpani. This martial tone continues through much of the work.

The second movement Andante is full of interest and variety and was delivered by Smirnoff and his musicians, individually and as an ensemble, with full attention to dynamics and detail. There is a standout violin solo, which was intended for Viotti, the composer-violinist at the London premiere, and it is easy to see why the whole movement was encored at the time. Concertmaster Kathleen Brauer delivered the violin part stylishly.

An elephantine minuet fills the gap to the Finale allegro which is dynamic and colorful with frantic drumrolls underlining brass and orchestra in a fine run up to a big orchestral conclusion. Smirnoff and his Philharmonic made the most of this fresh and surprising composition. The live acoustic of Nichols Hall was perfect for the chamber-sized orchestra, a nice change from the rather dry and analytical sound of the Philharmonic’s usual venue at Pick-Staiger Hall.

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