Illinois Philharmonic opens 40th anniversay season with a new conductor and new home

Sun Oct 15, 2017 at 12:02 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Stilian Kirov Photo 2
Stilian Kirov led the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra’s season-opening concert Saturday night in Palos Heights.

The Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra launched its 40th anniversary season with two significant firsts.

Most importantly, Saturday night’s concert in Palos Heights marked Stilian Kirov’s first appearance as IPO music director. And despite a rainy night, the southwest suburban orchestra’s loyal and enthusiastic audience turned out to cheer on their new young conductor.

After playing a game of musical Lincoln-Way high schools for the past several seasons in far-flung Frankfort, the IPO appears to have found a more congenial home at Trinity Christian College. Despite the brick walls and gabled roof of Ozinga Chapel, the acoustic is surprisingly good in the wide, inviting room—on the dry side but no more than their previous halls. A long acoustical shield behind the orchestra appeared to help with clarity and projection. The Palos venue is also more conveniently located to draw audiences, about half the distance from Chicago as previously.

The tall Bulgarian-born conductor is an elegant presence on the podium, presenting a stylistic 180 from his predecessor. Where David Danzmayr’s hyperactive style made for exciting if sometimes frenetic results, Kirov is his antithesis—restrained with minimal motions and little visual showmanship.

Though the composer names were familiar–Respighi, Beethoven and Mendelssohn–Kirov chose a program of relative rarities from each. Further, while most new music directors open their tenure with something fast and flashy, Kirov went the other way with Respighi’s Gli Uccelli (The Birds).

That proved a wise choice. Kirov was clearly in synch with the Italian composer’s neo-Baroque style and drew an impressive performance of this lightly scored work. The woodwinds were especially felicitous, bringing out the playful charm of their avian solos, and the string playing lovely and radiant throughout with Kirov drawing some magical hushed pianissimos.

The evening’s centerpiece was Beethoven’s Triple Concerto with the tri-generation Hersh Trio as solo protagonists.

The least accomplished of the composer’s seven concertos, the Triple is an uneven work with some of the trite moments oddly reassuring in that even Beethoven could have his off days. The Triple Concerto rally needs three stellar, personality-plus soloists to fool us into thinking it’s prime Beethoven.

That didn’t happen. The soloists–pianist Paul Hersh, his son, violinist Stefan Hersh, and grandson, cellist Alexander Hersh—offered a performance more conscientious than engaging. There were fleeting intonational excursions from both string players and a couple jarring lapses by the elder pianist. More troubling than the occasional technical blemishes, was the lack of wit and charm in a work that needs all it can get of both.

The evening closed with music of Mendelssohn, Kirov opting for the composer’s “Reformation” symphony (No. 5)  over his more popular works in the genre.

The new music director led an alert, well-played performance that felt like it wasn’t yet entirely lived in interpretively. There were a few passages where the young conductor’s direction felt rather cautious and metrical, and the steep tempo shift into the finale’s closing section proved unconvincing.

But overall the positives largely outweighed the quibbles. Kirov drew strikingly hushed string playing in the rising “Dresden Amen” of the opening movement, and the second movement had ample lilting charm. The finale brought out the energy and spiritual elan with the broad coda delivering the majestic resonance.   

Though the IPO roster is largely unchanged, the horn playing was much improved and strings and winds performed with impressive refinement and expressive poise. A worthy and promising start to Kirov’s debut season and the Illinois Philharmonic’s anniversary year.

Stilian Kirov leads the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra in Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5, Vladigerov’s Improvisation and Toccata and Copland’s Symphony for Organ and Orchestra with soloist David Schrader 7:30 p.m. November 18 at Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights.

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One Response to “Illinois Philharmonic opens 40th anniversay season with a new conductor and new home”

  1. Posted Oct 18, 2017 at 9:58 pm by Richrd G. Moutvic MD

    The concert was beautiful. Maestro Kirov lead the orchestra brilliantly. The venue was most pleasant, The evening was a perfect beginning for the IPO’s 40th anniversary .

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