Simone Porter’s ravishing Korngold highlights Illinois Philharmonic opener

Sun Oct 21, 2018 at 1:38 pm

By John von Rhein

Stilian Kirov conducted the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra’s season-opening concert Saturday in Palos Heights.

Having a dynamic and ambitious young music director guiding its artistic fortunes is crucial for any regional orchestra seeking to attract the top players and to build a solid, community-minded organization—especially in an area as replete with competing suburban ensembles as greater Chicago.

The Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra had such a conductor in the now-departed David Danzmayr. It most certainly has one again in his gifted successor, Stilian Kirov, now in the second season of a three-year contract as music director of the southwest suburban ensemble.

The Bulgarian-born, Juilliard-trained, 35-year-old conductor has spoken of “the limitless growth potential” of the IPO as the largest professional performing arts organization in the southland. His commitment to fostering that growth could be gleaned from the alert, energized playing he elicited from the IPO at the opening concert of its 41st season Saturday evening in Ozinga Chapel at Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights.

If playing American music appears to be less of a priority with Kirov than it was with his predecessor (at least during the current season), the appointment of the 27-year-old American composer Ben Ash as the IPO’s first composer-in-residence for 2018-19, demonstrates his good intentions.

The Seattle-based Ash, one of three finalists in the orchestra’s first “Classical Evolve” composition competition, was represented on Saturday’s program by the world premiere of his IPO-commissioned Cut My Legs from Underneath Me.

How curious that so mild-mannered and audience-friendly a piece should bear so aggressive a title! Ash’s designation refers to the various interruptions sustained by the main melody as introduced by trumpet and horn near the beginning of the nine-minute work, a tune later taken up in several permutations involving other combinations of instruments.

The central melody may be unprepossessing in itself but the ensuing disruptions yield a couple of arresting effects, including weird glissandos in the strings and winds, and pugnacious rumbles of timpani, bass drum and low brass. The expressive character does a strange 180 near the end; the texture thins to a string quartet alone, and the final sound we hear is a whistling high E played by concertmaster Azusa Tashiro on the fingerboard, pianissimo.

With its post-minimalist pulsing strings reminiscent of Michael Torke’s “color” pieces (but far less colorful), Cut My Legs from Underneath Me sounded like a better grade of film music. (Sure enough, Ash is currently enrolled in a master’s degree program in film score composition at the Seattle Film Institute.) One kept waiting in vain to hear rather more harmonic pungency to spice up the prevailingly bland tonal diatonicism.

Kirov’s players pitched in gamely and the composer took his bows along with the performers but had to do so quickly before the lukewarm applause died away. Perhaps Ash will enjoy greater success with the second IPO commission of his residency, scheduled to be unveiled March 16.

The program was somewhat misleadingly marketed as “American Originals.” George Gershwin, whose An American in Paris concluded the concert, certainly rates as one. Leonard Bernstein, whose ubiquitous Candide Overture began the program, was way beyond original: This most protean American musician of the 20th century was absolutely sui generis.

The Hollywood-transplanted Austrian Erich Wolfgang Korngold, represented by his 1945 Violin Concerto, was not all that original in his post-Romantic musical grammar – Richard Strauss got there first – but, of course, Korngold’s lush 1930s and ‘40s film scores set the template for several generations of Tinseltown movie composers to come.

The season opener began with the local Marist High School band marching down the aisles to lead a mass sing-and-play-along of the National Anthem.

Then it was on to a snappy, if a mite raw IPO rendition of Bernstein’s most often played concert piece, marred only by a briefly faltering trumpet. (The same solo player also sounded too “straight” in the bluesy solo that comes early in American in Paris but relaxed in time for the big syncopated tune near the end of that tone poem.)

The dryish but clear and pleasing acoustic of Ozinga Chapel may not have been ideal for the richly cinematic orchestral textures of the Korngold concerto (the acoustical shell no doubt helped projection), but they provided a satisfactory frame for soloist Simone Porter’s ravishing performance.

Simone Porter

The day is long past, fortunately, when this unabashedly romantic piece – commissioned by Bronislaw Huberman and premiered and promoted by Jascha Heifetz – was dismissed by critics as hopelessly reactionary, derived as are its materials from Korngold’s soundtracks to such silver-screen oldies as Anthony Adverse and The Prince and the Pauper. In recent decades the score has secured a firm and well-deserved foothold in the concert repertoire and on recording.

Porter commands the technical chops, throbbing vibrato but, most importantly, the expressive panache, needed to bring the music’s rhapsodic lyricism to life; she did so with absolute sincerity and not a whiff of gloppy sentiment. Indeed, the deep, penetrating sound she drew from her instrument – a 1745 Guadagnini violin on loan from the Mandell Collection of Southern California – easily rode Korngold’s shimmering orchestration.

Heifetz was, of course, nonpareil in “his” concerto, but Porter’s silken-toned virtuosity puts her right up there with the finest interpreters of her generation. Her intonation was impeccable, even in the breakneck digital gymnastics of the finale.

Kirov and the orchestra backed her with comparable warmth, sweep and flexibility, even if the horns weren’t squarely on pitch for their big restatement of the dancing theme of the variations-finale—a goosebumps-inducing passage that suggests Errol Flynn in full swashbuckling glory.

American in Paris is film music that originated in the concert hall – who can forget Gene Kelly dancing along the boulevards of Paris to the strains of Gershwin’s music, in Vincente Minnelli’s 1951 film of the same name?

Balances were a tad careless and some of the attacks untidy, but I admired the jaunty exuberance Kirov’s players brought to the jazzy syncopations of An American in Paris. The direction they received from the podium was articulate and purposeful; best of all, the IPO chief refused to cheapen this tuneful slice of vintage Americana with any errant showmanship. The man is all music – all business – and the organization he heads is the clear beneficiary.

Stilian Kirov conducts the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra in Elgar’s Serenade for Strings, Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 1 (with piano soloist Nadejda Tzanova and trumpet soloist Peter Makedonski), Neruda’s Trumpet Concerto in E flat and Grieg’s Holberg Suite 7:30 p.m. November 17 at Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights.

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