Kirov, Illinois Philharmonic hit their stride with resplendent Rachmaninoff 

Sun Mar 17, 2019 at 6:05 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Stilian Kirov conducted the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra Saturday night at Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights. Photo: Chuck Moses

Any subscriber to the still-on-strike CSO who may have ventured south to hear the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra for the first time this weekend likely received a pleasant surprise.

In a mostly Russian program Saturday night at Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights, Stilian Kirov led his most impressive and—by far—best played concert to date since taking the reins of the southwest suburban ensemble in the fall of 2017.

In his two seasons since becoming IPO music director, Kirov’s concerts have been solid and worthy yet also frustrating. Despite the sensitive and intelligent conducting by the young maestro, performances were too often let down by bloops, ensemble lapses and just plain sloppy playing. The performance of Mahler’s First a year ago was emblematic, with a rousing rendition undermined by roughness and errors, large and small. One was almost unconsciously making a mental file card on the IPO, saying “good strings, uneven winds, shaky brass.”

Fortunately, Saturday’s magnificent performance of Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2 showed this partnership hitting its stride, with a virtual sea change in the orchestra’s fortunes. No “good for a regional ensemble” qualifiers need be made at all about the Philharmonic’s playing of this Russian warhorse, which was a hugely impressive achievement by any measure. Let’s hope that this was not a one-off event but a sampler of even better things to come.

A glance at the program’s roster shows that Kirov has succeeded where his predecessors did not in making several judicious yet clearly efficacious personnel changes. One could hear the difference immediately in the more assured and polished solos from several of the front chairs.

Most striking were the strings in Rachmaninoff’s opus, which were simply glorious. The IPO has always had a strong string section, but Saturday night they played with a richness, burnished gleam and luxuriant warmth that were extraordinary. One was almost looking for stage mics, such was the tonal resplendence.

For all its popularity and tuneful qualities, Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony is not a work that plays itself. The epic structure and long, arching melodies require a firm hand and clear yet idiomatic direction if this sprawling score is not going to coalesce into a lumbering morass.

Kirov showed himself a Rachmaninoff conductor of the first rank in this performance. From the brooding opening bars to the final joyous coda, the hour-long symphony unfolded as if in one breath, seamlessly and logically, with ideal tempos throughout.

There was an inexorable flow to the long first movement, with Kirov patiently building the long melodic phrases and skillfully judging the ebb and flow, the central climax craggy and powerful.

The scherzo went with fizzing dynamism and energy, the big central melody given with sumptuous tone and heart-easing warmth. The direction of the Adagio was masterful, the long paragraphs progressing with a sense of inevitable flow. The IPO’s excellent principal clarinetist Trevor O’Riordan lifted a solo that conveyed the plaintive, lonely essence of Rachmaninoff’s score. 

Kirov kept a taut grip in the finale, which was aptly exciting and jubilant but never allowed to become loud and raucous, the conductor ensuring that the reprises of the big tunes received their due as much as the leaping main theme.  

If the music director is allowed to continue to reshape and build the IPO, it’s intriguing to think what the future may hold, after such a vast improvement in one year. 

The centerpiece of the evening was equally impressive, with  William Wolfram as solo protagonist in a barn-storming performance of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 2.

A a time when Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 is played by nearly every young keyboard phenom, Tchaikovsky’s Second Concerto remains largely terra incognita— due to its length and difficulty, with tortuous complexities that make Rachmaninoff’s concerto seem like a bagatelle. 

To his credit, Wolfram played the original version of Tchaikovsky’s concerto—note complete— rather than the shorter and simplified Siloti edition.

William Wolfram

The soloist seemed a bit uptight in the opening minutes of the performance, with a brief digital slip and rushing slightly ahead of the orchestra. But Wolfram quickly got on track and brought digital power and an individual touch to this neglected work.

Wolfram’s technical arsenal is as complete as they come, and his tackling of the formidable complexities of the opening movement was a remarkable display. In addition to vaulting through the massive octave volleys and demanding pages, the pianist brought a wry, playful touch at time—as with his teasing out the lead-in back to the orchestra in the movement’s final cadenza.

The central Andante offers one of Tchaikovsky’s most indelible themes, and Wolfram’s supple touch plumbed just the right vein of melancholy introspection. The slow movement morphs into a mini-triple concerto, and concertmaster Azusa Tashiro and acting principal cellist Lisa Bressler contributed graceful solos and interplay with Wolfram’s piano.

The finale was aptly “con fuoco” as marked, with Wolfram off at a fleet tempo in the rocketing main theme. He handled the bursts of fireworks and knuckle-busting runs up and down the keyboard with ample strength and accuracy; Kirov and the Philharmonic musicians were with him every step of the way, culminating in a fiery and exhilarating coda.

Kirov was a most simpatico partner for Wolfram in this intensely challenging score. One horn lapse in the early going apart, the Philharmonic musicians provided equally galvanized playing; Kirov ensured that the rapid back and forth between soloist and ensemble was always on time and clearly projected.

The evening led off with the world premiere of Posh Mosh, the second of three commissions this season from IPO’s composer in residence Ben Ash.

Like many younger—and some not so young— composers, the 27-year-old Ash takes equal inspiration from rock music as much as the classical tradition. Those dueling sympathies are manifest in the work’s title as well as the divergent styles in this brief curtain-raiser.

A brassy opening leads to a punchily rhythmic, aggressive main theme, which is soon accented with decorative lines by the violins. The tempo slows down for a pastoral episode and brief violin solo, before the heavy-footed motif returns. A passage for musing bassoons leads to the final metallic, hard-charging section with brass and percussion to the fore driving to an emphatic coda. 

John von Rhein was unimpressed with Ash’s first IPO commission, Cut My Legs from Underneath Me, which premiered last October. But Posh Mosh fulfills its populist utility effectively, and there’s not a lot of depth one can explore in eight minutes. With Kirov and his musicians giving Ash’s piece an exuberant sendoff, it was impossible not to enjoy this lively mashup of rock riffs and symphonic dressing.

The Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra season continues April 27 with Stilian Kirov leading an all-Mozart program. On tap is the Overture to The Marriage of Figaro, Symphony No. 41 “Jupiter,” and the Violin Concerto No. 5 with Chicago Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Robert Chen as soloist. Concert time is 7:30 p.m. at Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights.


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