Pianist’s sublime Rachmaninoff highlights Illinois Philharmonic program

Sun Nov 22, 2015 at 2:04 pm

By Hannah Edgar

Pianist Di Wu performed Rachmaninoff Saturday night with the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra.
Pianist Di Wu performed Rachmaninoff Saturday night with the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra.

On Saturday night, the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra drew a sizable crowd to the Lincoln-Way North Performing Arts Center in Frankfort for its second concert of the 2015-16 season. Apparently, when audience favorites like Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and Swan Lake are on the menu, even the region’s biggest November snowfall in more than a century won’t keep patrons away.

Though mostly comprised of standard symphonic fare, the Philharmonic’s “Russian Masters” program began with a lesser-known treat: the 2006 symphonic poem Icarus, by Russian-American composer Lera Auerbach.

As conductor David Danzmayr mentioned in his lengthy opening remarks, Auerbach is not only a composer, but an active concert pianist. In programming a work by a composer-musician, Icarus follows in the footsteps of Joshua Roman’s cello concerto Awakening earlier this season.

Icarus is a churning work that builds in power as its eponymous subject soars ever closer to the sun, with snapping Bartókian pizzicatos lending a heightened tension. Then, after a series of earth-shattering, dissonant chords from the brass, the orchestra hushes to highlight a single violin in a plaintive but tranquil solo.

The Philharmonic paralleled Icarus’s hurtling ascent in its dogged, energized interpretation. With the exception of a few errant pizzicatos in the piece’s opening, the group made a compelling case for Auerbach’s work, which melded well with the Romantic trajectory of the rest of the program.

Soloist Di Wu joined the orchestra for Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. From her first entrance, Wu marked herself as an intuitive soloist, uniting virtuosic pyrotechnics with a sensitive touch. Though the Rhapsody is a set of variations, Wu never seemed to lose sight of the piece’s overall architecture, opting for an approach that united the variations as a continuous thread rather than presenting them as independent episodes. Under her fingers, a piece too often glitzed and glammed into an ostentatious showpiece became something more profound.

Wu’s seamless interplay with the orchestra was as impressive as the performance itself: She and the Philharmonic play off each other with an easy elasticity rarely matched in soloist-orchestra engagements. Thanks to a well-balanced orchestra and its outstanding soloist, this sublime Rhapsody was easily the highlight of the evening; one hopes that such chemistry can only lead to future collaborations between Wu and this orchestra.

A balletic second half followed, beginning with Tchaikovsky’s Suite from Swan Lake. Danzmayr’s interpretation was highly charged, though often disproportionately big-boned; the opening was heavy and sometimes felt rhythmically jagged. For better or for worse, this boldness persisted throughout the performance: Though the emphatic projection came in handy for the jaunty, concluding fifth movement (the “Czardas” and “Danse Hungroise”), there were a few moments when the piece’s dance-like subtleties were lost.

Luckily, these quibbles were far outnumbered by moments of cleanness and expressive poignancy, namely in the graceful second-movement waltz and the dainty “Danse des cygnes.”

The more cohesive performance of the two ballet suites on the program was that which concluded the evening, Stravinsky’s 1919 suite to The Firebird. Given a riveting performance by the Philharmonic, this rich, expansive Firebird spotlighted excellent section work, especially among the winds. Powerful low brass gave a feral edge to the third-movement “Infernal Dance of King Kashchei,” and double-reed principals Erin Kozakis (bassoon) and Naomi Bensdorf Frisch (oboe) shone in their marvelous fourth-movement solos.

Lushness gave way to hair-raising brilliance in the Finale, the electricity of which alone was enough reason to brave the cold.

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