Pianist Choi brings illumination to IPO’s blackout night

Sun Feb 11, 2018 at 12:24 pm

By Tim Sawyier

WInston Choi performed Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra Saturday night in Palos Heights.
Winston Choi performed Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra Saturday night in Palos Heights. Photo: Saunder Ho

The Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra’s first concert of 2018 was entitled “Expect the Unexpected,” despite the fact that its program (initially) consisted of three familiar Beethoven works.

Given what transpired at Trinity Christian College’s Ozinga Chapel in Palos Heights on Saturday night, it is hard to escape the notion that the concert’s inapt title exerted some kind of prophetic influence on the course of the evening. 

A few minutes before the concert’s 7:30 p.m. start time, almost all of the lights in the IPO’s new home venue went dark–leaving the hall illuminated by a handful of stand lights on the stage and two glowing screens on either side of it. Ten minutes after the billed start time a voice announced over the PA system, “There will be a short delay while we find the fuse box for the lights.” 

Photo: Tim Sawyier
Photo: Tim Sawyier

The next announcement a few minutes later encouraged audience members to circulate and grab coffee in the lobby, creating the uncertain atmosphere of an indefinite flight delay. Shortly before 8 p.m. IPO executive director Christina Salerno took the stage saying it would be at least another 15 minutes before the problem was solved. At this point large standalone spotlights were being placed on either side of the stage in an effort to create enough visibility in the dark for the musicians to perform.

Ultimately, the stopgap solution was deemed adequate. Salerno announced that in the interest of time the orchestra would forego the scheduled opener of the Coriolan Overture and proceed directly to Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1, with the formidable Winston Choi as soloist.

Despite the fact that Choi himself appeared as a black silhouette on the darkened stage, his playing throughout Beethoven’s Op. 15 was exceptional. In the opening Allegro con brio he was incisive in the jagged solo passages, and gave the contrasting lyrical forays elevated treatment.

Choi opted for Beethoven’s third published cadenza to this movement, by far the knottiest of the three he composed. This one has the air of documented improvisation, anticipating the opening of the much later Choral Fantasy. Choi was exceptional here, making the thorny passagework sound almost facile, and lending an overall architecture to the extended thematic and harmonic wanderings.

Choi’s playing in the central Largo went with a sensitive vocal quality. The inward feel of this music actually benefitted from the dusky lighting, and acting IPO principal clarinet Claire Werling made eloquent solo contributions throughout. The closing Rondo had the requisite boisterous playfulness, though there was a precipitous moment near the end when a rash of late wind entrances nearly caused the performance to fall apart. Guest conductor Stefan Veselka led a largely unobtrusive accompaniment that in no way hampered Choi’s brilliant playing.

By the end of intermission the lights had been fixed—apparently with the help of an electrician member of the audience. Unfortunately, the technical fiasco segued into a musical one, with the focus on conductor Veselka in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7.

Stefan Veselka
Stefan Veselka

Chief conductor of the Münster Symphony Orchestra in Germany, Veselka led a disinterested, pedestrian performance of this Beethoven favorite. The most glaring of many problems was that from the first chord to the last the brass section of the orchestra—particularly the horns—was egregiously too loud. Veselka did nothing to correct this problem. The result was that at even moderately loud dynamics all one could hear clearly were sustained brass pitches.

Veselka conducted without a score, though he could have greatly benefited from a closer look at one. All music, and Beethoven’s is no exception, has a trajectory. The majority of the time, however, Veselka seemed content to allow this most dynamic of symphonies simply to chug along. He periodically indicated accents or major arrivals with little regard for the work’s larger structure, while doing nothing to address the performance’s ubiquitous balance problems.

The IPO made significant gains under the leadership of departed music director David Danzmayr. It is to be hoped that they continue to build upon these strides under new music director Stilian Kirov, and that Veselka’s uninspired outing will not become the new normal for the IPO. A strong suburban ensemble with a devoted audience, the IPO is capable of much more.

Music director Stilian Kirov leads the IPO 7:30 p.m. March 10 at Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights. The program comprises  Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story and Mahler’s Symphony No. 1. ipomusic.org

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