Alastair Willis makes a strong showing with Illinois Philharmonic

Sun Nov 20, 2016 at 12:53 pm

By Tim Sawyier

Alastair Willis conducted the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra Saturday night in New Lenox.
Alastair Willis conducted the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra Saturday night in New Lenox.

The Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra presented their second concert of the season Saturday night at the Lincoln-Way West Performing Arts Center in New Lenox. The performance was led by conductor Alastair Willis, who recently finished a four-year tenure with the Illinois Symphony Orchestra. Willis, like all those taking the IPO podium this season, is a candidate to fill the position of departed music director David Danzmayr, who left at the end of last season. He led a largely vigorous performance of Eastern European warhorses that should put him in serious contention for IPO’s music directorship.

The evening began with Alexander Borodin’s endearing curtain-raiser In the Steppes of Central Asia. Willis led a delicate reading highlighted by graceful contributions from the IPO wind section, most notably J. Ricardo Castañeda on English horn. The IPO string section played with a gracious sonority under Willis’ leadership. 

William Wolfram
William Wolfram

Pianist William Wolfram joined the IPO for Tchaikovsky’s well-worn yet beloved Piano Concerto No. 1. Wolfram is a consummate artist, whose contributions to the early summer’s North Shore Chamber Music Festival in Northbrook are reliably high-caliber. Saturday night, however, Wolfram was hamstrung by an instrument with a disastrously muted sonority.

From the famed opening chords to the end of the work the piano’s tone was anemic and monochromatic, despite dedicated efforts on Wolfram’s part to make it sound otherwise. This made for an experience like watching someone shouting from behind soundproof glass; lots of effort, but to little perceptible sonic effect. Wolfram’s playing was capable and authoritative, but lacked punch because of the instrument’s deficiencies, which were only exacerbated by the hall’s acoustic dryness.

That the concerto made any impact at all was due to both the familiarity of the score and Willis’ sensitive accompaniment. The IPO’s support was necessarily subdued when Wolfram was in action, but Willis brought fire to the orchestral tuttis and was always attentive to the architecture of Tchaikovsky’s extended melodies.

Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra constituted the second half, which Willis introduced with tastefully brief comments from the stage. Impressively, Willis conducted the work essentially from memory, hedging against disaster with only a study score—which he never consulted—on a lowered music stand. 

While the shadowy opening bars of the Introduzione could have been more atmospheric, the virtuosic sections of that movement were shrewdly handled, as the conductor drew incisive playing from the orchestra without micromanaging. That said, Willis should refrain from shaking his head when players fail to enter or do so incorrectly; audience members are far more likely to notice that than a false entrance.

The “pairs” of instruments all acquitted themselves well in the Giuoco del coppie, and Willis made the movement’s numerous pauses, hesitations, and rubatos sound organic. The Elegia was creeping and lugubrious, with Willis eliciting palpable anguish in the acutely pained outbursts.

The orchestra made the Intermezzo sound effortlessly off-kilter, and gave lush treatment to Bartók’s sumptuous second theme. Willis shot the audience a glance at the movement’s notorious trombone slides—which he called the orchestra’s “most impolite sounds” in his introduction—eliciting chuckles from the audience. 

The IPO was more than game for Bartók’s tour de force finale. The orchestra deftly navigated the movement’s technical demands without apparent difficulty, particularly the string section, which was impeccably unified throughout the perpetual motion passagework.  This is a testament to the ensemble building Danzmayr accomplished during his tenure and good fortune for whomever is selected to succeed him.

The Illinois Philharmonic’s next classical performance will be on January 21, 2017 at Lincoln-Way East Performing Arts Center in Frankfort. Stilian Kirov will lead Kodály’s Dances of Galanta, Ligeti’s Concert Romanesc, and Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with soloist Sean Chen. ipomusic.org708-481-7774.

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