Kirov, Illinois Philharmonic wrap season with sumptuous Strauss

Sun May 19, 2019 at 2:52 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Stilian Kirov conducted the Illinois Phlharmonic Orchestra in music of Mahler and Bernstein Saturday night in Palos Heights. Photo: Chuck Moses
Stilian Kirov conducted the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra’s season finale Saturday night in Palos Heights. Photo: Chuck Moses

It’s been a good spring for Stilian Kirov.

The Bulgarian-born conductor received his fourth consecutive Solti Foundation Career Assistance Award in April. And, clearly pleased with his first two seasons at the helm, the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra recently renewed Kirov’s contract as music director for an additional three years. That will keep this gifted young musician on the podium to lead the southwest suburban ensemble through the spring of 2023. 

On Saturday night, Kirov directed the Illinois Philharmonic in their final concert of the season in a challenging Richard Strauss program at Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights. If not quite as technically polished as their impressive Russian program in March, Kirov’s consistently strong conducting drew responsive and energized playing, which bolstered the impression of an orchestra whose fortunes are on the upswing under Kirov’s leadership.

The sole non-Strauss item on tap was the opening work, Fight or Flight by Ben Ash, the IPO’s outgoing composer in residence. (Following the orchestra’s Classical Evolve competition last week, Martha Horst was tapped as the IPO’s composer in residence for the 2019-20 season.)

As previously noted, there’s not a whole lot of depth one can plumb in less than five minutes. But Fight or Flight proved effective as another of  Ash’s lively, motoric curtain-raisers, skillfully scored and varied in its tempo shifts. Kirov and the musicians gave both Ash and his final world premiere commission a vital and exuberant sendoff.

It was a good idea to vary the program’s emphasis on Strauss showpieces with the darker and more reflective world of the composer’s Four Last Songs. But this is not music that can come off with a singer who is not up to the interpretive challenges of Strauss’s movingly restrained farewell to his life and art.

D’Ana Lombard

Soloist D’Ana Lombard possesses an ample instrument and appeared to have all the notes. Yet her anodyne, rather squally soprano proved something of a trial and this humdrum performance largely missed the wealth of expressive opportunities in Strauss’s affecting lieder. 

Lombard was best in the final song, “Im Abendrot,” rendered with a more rapt and intimate response. But for the most part, her indecipherable words, casual approach to the text and blandly generalized expression provided little pleasure in music that requires more sensitive and detailed artistry. The operatic stage manners, with arms repeatedly flung out at high points, didn’t help.

Too bad because Kirov elicited nuanced and beautiful playing from the orchestra throughout. Concertmaster Azusa Tashiro’s glowing violin solo in “Beim Schlafengehn” communicated more of the autumnal essence of these songs than anything heard from the soloist. A jarring if apt accent to the cycle’s emphasis on last things was provided with an audience member’s aluminum walker crashing loudly to the floor in the hushed final bars of “September.”

Strauss arranged his own expansive Rosenkavalier Suite, which deftly reworks the major themes from his celebrated uber-Viennese opera into an orchestral showpiece. A couple fallible trumpet solos apart, Strauss’s confection received a wonderfully lush and sumptuous reading. The IPO horns led off with a robust upward surge, Baron Ochs’ waltz went with a delicious hesitating lilt, and its uninhibited reprise at the coda was thrown off with an antic boisterous panache that Strauss would likely have approved of.

In both the Rosenkavalier Suite and the performance of Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks that closed the evening, one was impressed anew at Kirov’s conducting. No matter what the repertoire, Kirov always seems to find the perfect tempo giusto. While he draws playing of great vitality and dynamism, his supple, flexible direction never indulges in extremes or theatricality for its own sake and is always put wholly at the service of the score at hand.

Till is, of course, one of the most fearsomely difficult works in the orchestral canon. Not all the IPO players emerged unscathed, with a scary moment of ensemble unsteadiness in the middle and a couple screechy oboe moments. One would also have liked more of the humor to come across at times.

Still, this was an engaging and immensely exuberant portrait of Strauss’s eternal trickster with mostly terrific horn playing, delightfully characterful woodwinds and an emphatic slam-bang coda to close out the concert as well as an accomplished and significant season for Kirov and his musicians.

The Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra opens its 2019-20 season 5:30 p.m. October 19 at Trinity Christian  College in Palos Heights. The American program includes Walter Piston’s Symphony No. 6 and soloist Xiayin Wang performing Leroy Anderson’s Piano Concerto and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.

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