Conductor Newhouse closes IPO “audition” season with strong showing

Sun Apr 09, 2017 at 1:36 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Sean Newhouse conducted the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra Saturday night in New Lenox.
Sean Newhouse conducted the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra Saturday night in New Lenox.

The Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra has been engaged in a season-long search for a new music director to lead the suburban ensemble since the departure of the charismatic David Danzmayr last year.

Four candidates have led the Illinois Philharmonic in their “auditions” this season. Saturday night it was the turn of Sean Newhouse, who conducted the final concert of the IPO season at Lincoln-Way Central Center for the Performing Arts in far southwest suburban New Lenox.

An IPO spokeswoman said that the orchestra’s selection committee will start deliberating Monday and is expected to choose a new music director from this year’s conductors in four to six weeks. Based on Saturday’s impressive showing, it’s likely that Sean Newhouse will stand high among the finalists.

A former assistant conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the young maestro made his BSO podium debut in dramatic fashion, filling in for an ailing James Levine and leading a performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 on two-hours notice.

It’s clear this is a musician who can lead an orchestra with command. From the concentrated opening of the lower strings, Newhouse directed a highly focused, notably dramatic performance of Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9.

Like Danzmayr, Newhouse is a dynamic podium figure and his energetic direction drew taut, responsive and full-blooded playing. One got the sense of Newhouse–also like Danzmayr–inspiring the IPO members to perform at or beyond their capabilities in this fiery, impassioned performance.

The outer movements were thrilling with the excitement ratcheted up to an almost frenetic level in the finale. The Largo’s English horn solo lent the right nostalgic expression, with a punchy Scherzo providing contrast. While there were fitful ensemble lapses, the performance was largely polished and boldly projected; even the shaky IPO horns proved strong in the first movement’s stentorian main theme.

Newhouse led off this sort-of American program with “Buckaroo Holiday” from Aaron  Copland’s Rodeo–a onetime concert staple that seems to have been shooed out of the corral over recent decades.

Here too, Newhouse led a vital and rhythmically tight performance. Contributions from the orchestra were more uneven here with characterful trumpet solos amid brass lapses and pallid woodwind playing.

It’s astonishing that it has taken almost 20 years for Edgar Meyer’s Violin Concerto to be heard anywhere in Illinois, let alone Chicago. Kudos to the Philharmonic for presenting this underrated work in its statewide premiere, with Tessa Lark as soloist.

Tessa Lark
Tessa Lark

Best known for his homespun Appalachian collaborations with Yo-Yo Ma, Meyer wrote this 1999 concerto for Hilary Hahn (who recorded it as well) and it remains his most successful full-length concert work.

The first movement opens with a lyrical theme for the soloist before settling into a cheerful, quasi-minimalist rhythmic energy. The music suggests a relaxed train trip across a scenic Western landscape, with the violin riffs growing more elaborate as the journey unfolds. The second and final movement begins with a rapt, beautiful theme for the soloist, peaceful like healing balm. The music soon segues into a Meyer-esque bluegrass tune with the two themes alternating. The tempo speeds up and the solo writing grows increasingly virtuosic, with a touching reprise of the first theme, before a final burst of fiddle fireworks at the coda.

Lark, who has worked with Meyer, provided superb advocacy as solo protagonist. She coaxed a gorgeous tone from her “ex-Gingold” Stradivarius and was wholly in sync with the music. Lark played with glowing tone in the lyrical themes and brought an idiomatic rustic feel to the populist elements. Her technique felt a bit stretched in the finale’s blistering pyrotechnics but that contributed to the excitement.  Newhouse drew energized and close support for his soloist.

The Leo Michudo IPO Award for Lifetime Service was presented to Craig C. Grannon after intermission for his long service as treasurer and board vice-president.

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