Kulenovic, Lake Forest Symphony take flight with exuberant Beethoven

Sun Nov 08, 2015 at 3:26 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Vladimir Kulenovic conducted the Lake Forest Symphony Saturday night in Grayslake.
Vladimir Kulenovic conducted the Lake Forest Symphony Saturday night in Grayslake.

There are innumerable regional orchestras surrounding the greater Chicago area that serve their local communities with distinction. Few are more venerable than the Lake Forest Symphony, which is currently marking its 57th season.

Judging by the polished and often thrilling playing at Saturday night’s concert led by Vladimir Kulenovic, the Lake Forest Symphony is on the rise, sounding very much revitalized under its new 35-year-old music director.

Currently in his second season, the tall slender conductor directs the players with clear and flowing gestures, drawing consistently responsive and impressive playing. The orchestra boasts several of the area’s best freelance musicians and clearly has struck gold with their excellent new concertmaster, the 22-year-old Israeli Netanel Draiblate. If rather geographically isolated, the orchestra’s home at the James Lumber Center at the College of Lake County in Grayslake, offers a very live and brilliant acoustic.

The evening led off with the introduction to Haydn’s oratorio, The Creation. “The Representation of Chaos” makes an offbeat curtain-raiser but proved an effective calling card for the orchestra. With forceful yet acutely focused attacks, Kulenovic emphasized dynamic contrasts, drawing tight ensemble tuttis and notably refined and hushed string playing in the discordant depiction of pre-Creation nothingness.

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 was the main work on the program. Kulenovic was the winner of the 2015 Sir Georg Solti Conducting Award, and Saturday’s performance recalled Solti’s Beethoven in its dramatic tension, thrusting energy, and use of repeats.

This was also very much a young maestro’s Beethoven Seventh with quickish tempos across all four movements. At times one wanted a bit more light and shade. Kulenovic’s fleet take on the Allegretto, in particular, gave the music little room to breathe and felt streamlined, lacking expressive weight and gravitas.

Otherwise, this was accomplished and exciting Beethoven by any measure. The swing into the Vivace of the opening movement went with an almost infectious exhilaration, and the third movement brimmed with good humor in the woodwinds. The performance was off to the races in a rhytmically vital and exuberant finale. There were a few lapses, with fitful horn flubs and a strange oboe moment near the end of the first movement. But most of the playing by the Lake Forest Symphony was gleaming of tone and supremely committed, which bodes well for the future of this partnership.

Joaquin Achucarro
Joaquin Achucarro

The centerpiece of the program was Grieg’s Piano Concerto with Joaquin Achucarro as soloist. Though he has an ample discography and has performed with 206 orchestras, the veteran Spanish pianist is perhaps better known as a distinguished teacher, having taught at the Meadows School of the Arts at Southern Methodist University for nearly three decades.

There were moments when the march of time was apparent with some passing digital slips. But for the most part, the 83-year-old pianist served up a strong and dedicated performance of Grieg’s keyboard warhorse. Achucarro played with daunting power and a natural unforced eloquence. At times his playing was more sturdy than poetic, though he brought a glowing, soft-hued elegance to the slow movement that recalled the touch of Walter Gieseking.

Kulenovic was a highly attentive partner and the Lake Forest Symphony players provided full-bodied support for their soloist, the warm-toned cello section in particular led by principal Steven Houser.

Vladimir Kulenovic conducts the  Lake Forest Symphony January 23 and 24, 2016 in the Prelude to Act III of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8 and Brahms’ Violin Concerto with concertmaster Netanel Draiblate as soloist. lakeforestsymphony.org 

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