Violinist’s deep Brahms, terrific Elgar spark Illinois Philharmonic concert

Sun Jan 18, 2015 at 11:56 am

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Bella Hristova performed Brahms' Violin Concerto Saturday night with the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra in Frankfort. Photo: Lisa Marie Mazzucco
Bella Hristova performed Brahms’ Violin Concerto Saturday night with the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra in Frankfort. Photo: Lisa Marie Mazzucco

The Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra’s second program of its season demonstrated why, when this ensemble is at its best, it makes a trip to the far southwest suburbs worthwhile.

The charismatic David Danzmayr consistently inspires the regional orchestra to the limits of their capabilities and, often, beyond. With an inspired soloist and more polished playing than was heard in their season opener, Saturday night’s program of Brahms and Elgar at Lincoln-Way Performing Arts Center in  Frankfort brought one of the finest concerts since Danzmayr took the IPO reins in 2012.

The concert was aided by having a gifted young artist as solo protagonist in the Brahms Violin Concerto. Recipient of an Avery Fisher Career Grant in 2013, Bella Hristova was a First Place winner in the Michael Hill Violin Competition and has released an acclaimed Naxos disc of solo violin works by Charles de Beriot.

Hristova’s technique is extraordinary and, save for a brief moment in the first cadenza, her intonation faultless. If she started a bit stiffly, the Bulgarian violinist soon warmed up, playing with a firm bow arm and a notable freshness that kept the drama and lyricism in a fine equilibrium.

Her remarkable instrument is a 1655 Amati formerly owned by Louis Krasner, and the American violinist’s famous sweetness of tone was likewise evident in Hristova’s playing in the Adagio. The IPO woodwinds couldn’t quite match Hristova’s hushed refinement yet the violinist’s spacious and dynamically terraced phrasing found a deep, searching expression and striking sense of fantasy. The soloist seemed to pull back and play a bit cautiously at the concerto’s coda yet the Hungarian-flavored finale largely went with fine energy and vigor. Throughout Danzmayer drew ardent and sympathetic accompaniment, with notably energized playing from the IPO violins in the final movement.

David Danzmayr
David Danzmayr

In his affable introduction, the young Austrian conductor said that Elgar’s Enigma Variations is a work that means a great deal to him personally. In the ensuing performance, Danzmayr’s close identification with Elgar and his celebrated showpiece was clear in every bar, the conductor and orchestra offering up a bracing, richly characterful and eloquent performance.

Sir Edward Elgar was a late bloomer and it wasn’t until he wrote his Enigma Variations at age 42 that the English composer became an instant international success. Elgar’s musical portraits of himself, his wife and several close and eccentric friends remains as fresh today as it was at its 1899 premiere, spanning an array of expression from wryly affectionate to deeply profound.

Danzmayr was a sure-footed and idiomatic guide in this deceptively challenging work, keeping keen forward momentum while ensuring that each musical portrait was fully characterized. The main theme was given a supple rendering, the first variation (Elgar’s wife) a loving and warm touch. “H.D.S.-P.” was wonderfully raucous and rambunctious, “Ysobel” elegant and charming with lovely viola playing by Matthew Mantell.

“Nimrod” began in aptly hushed fashion, hovering on the edge of audibility, and Dnazmar seamlessly built this music into a stirring nobilmente climax. Elgar’s own confident self-portrait rounded off the performance in vital and exuberant fashion. Danzmayr is clearly an Elgarian of the first order, and perhaps he might favor his enthusiastic audience with one of Elgar’s symphonies in a future season.

Danzmayr’s commitment to American composers is laudable, with a homegrown work featured on every IPO program. Saturday it was a work by Gabriela Lena Frank that led off the evening.

Frank often makes much of her dizzyingly varied ethnic heritage (Lithuanian-Jewish, Peruvian, Spanish and Chinese) and her Elegia Andina (“Andean Elegy”) is no exception. In this case, the tripartite suite draws on her Peruvian background with Andean percussion and flute solos.

Despite the exotic scoring, Elegia Andina is not one of Frank’s more convincing works, emerging Saturday over its eleven minutes as an episodic array of eclectic effects rather than a unified whole. Danzmayr led an alert and attentive rendering with worthy flute solos by Cynthia Fudala and Beth Bryngelson.

The Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra’s next concert is March 21 with David Danzmayr leading a program featuring John Adams’ The Chairman Dances, Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 12, and Lee Actor’s Dance Rhapsody featuring the Chicago Multi-Cultural Dance Center.

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One Response to “Violinist’s deep Brahms, terrific Elgar spark Illinois Philharmonic concert”

  1. Posted Jan 20, 2015 at 10:19 pm by Richard Moutvic

    Not only did I throughly enjoy the IPO concert on Saturday night, but I enjoyed your review of the performance of the orchestra, Maestro Danzmayr and Ms. Hsritova. You nailed it! The Orchestra was superb under the baton of Mr. Danzmayr, and the entire performance was outstanding. I look forward with great anticipation to the next concert in March.

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