Chicago Philharmonic raises the roof with timpani concerto, Russian blockbusters

Mon Apr 08, 2019 at 2:40 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Timpanist Robert Everson performed Michael Daugherty’s “Raise the Roof” with the Chicago Philharmonic Sunday at Pick-Staiger Hall in Evanston.

Local orchestral music has not ceased to exist with the month-long strike by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Several suburban and regional ensembles offer worthy programs nearly every week, as can be seen in the CCR calendar of events.

Among the finest of local orchestras is the Chicago Philharmonic, which performed Sunday at Pick-Staiger Hall in Evanston. The matinee drew a large audience and offered a suitable lineup for a rainy afternoon, with two populist Russian showpieces framing a concerto for the unlikeliest of solo instruments.

Currently in his fifth season as artistic director of the orchestra, Scott Speck has clearly grown into the role and in his relationship with the players. In addition to showing more consistent balancing and less fussy tempos, he has become a more astute judge of how to handle Pick-Staiger’s very live acoustic, taming the overwhelming volume that disfigured some of his early Philharmonic outings.

Still, one would have liked more of a genuine pianissimo in the opening woodwind pages of Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture, which began the concert. If some mystery and atmosphere were lost with dynamics never dipping below a hale mezzo-forte, Speck and the musicians put across the big moments in fine style. The celebrated love theme went with apt yearning tenderness, and the street battle was thrilling, attacked with combustible intensity and whirlwind strings. 

A timpani concerto seems like a contradiction in terms. While adding to dramatic orchestral works, the timpani seems an imposing but limited instrument, one that can do dynamics and volume but precious little in terms of varied color and expression.

Still some composers have taken up the challenge. William Kraft has written a pair of timpani concertos, Philip Glass has written one for two timpanists, and Michael Daugherty has given it a shot with his Raise the Roof, performed on Sunday.

Daugherty’s populist style seems eminently well suited to solve the timpani soloist issue and that he largely accomplishes with Raise the Roof, which has become one of his most-performed works since its premiere in 2003.

The soloist on Sunday was Robert Everson, timpanist of the Philharmonic and several other local orchestras. Everson brought agility and impressive subtlety to his playing, contributing some of the widest dynamics heard all afternoon. The concerto opens with a crescendo on a kettledrum with an upside down cymbal placed on top of it and Everson sounded the opening notes in a barely audible hush.

Daugherty more or less acknowledge the timpani’s inherent limitations as a melodic vessel by making the orchestra even more than a concerto coequal than usual. The composer offers a plaintive theme for flute, some (spectacularly played) high trumpet passages, a hymn-like theme for strings, and a driving bluesy theme to wrap things up.

Speck kept the near-constant back and forth between the soloist and orchestra on track and Everson made the most of his opportunities in this 18-minute single movement. His cadenza was both arresting and nuanced, and he plumbed a surprising amount of sonic variety, using wire brushes, maraca sticks and his bare hands in addition to mallets. Following the emphatic final chords, Everson was warmly applauded by Speck and his Philharmonic colleagues as well as the audience.

Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade closed the afternoon. The ultimate forensic test of an ensemble’s mettle, this kaleidoscopic symphony, inspired by the tales of the 1001 Arabian nights, still astonishes in its melodic richness, cinematic amplitude and scoring audacity.

Speck led a grand sumptuous performance that largely did Rimsky’s showpiece proud. Apart from a somewhat self-conscious moulding at the start of the third movement, Speck led a naturally flowing performance with fine balancing and punchy impact. Climaxes were imposing in their richness of sonority and glittering brilliance.

Concertmaster David Perry brought an understated simplicity and silvery tone to his sinuous violin obbligato depicting the title character, with especially lovely playing in his final solos.

The many front-desk orchestra solos proved more variable, ranging from the terrific (flutist Thomas Robertello) to superb (oboist Anne Bach and clarinetist Sergey Gutorov) to passable (cello) and not so good (horn and bassoon).

Sunday’s concert was dedicated to the memory of Theodore “Ted” Kaitchuk, violist and longtime personnel manager for the Chicago Philharmonic

The Chicago Philharmonic performs with Cirque de la Symphonique 7:30 p.m. May 26 at the Harris Theater.

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