A bounteous American feast served up with panache by the Illinois Philharmonic

Sun Oct 20, 2019 at 3:54 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Stilian Kirov conducted the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra Saturday night in Palos Heights. Photo: Stefan Kalev

The Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra’s season-opening, all-American program had something for everyone: a world premiere, two piano concertante works—one a genuine rarity—and a symphony by a neglected 20th-century composer.

Not all the results were equal at Saturday’s concert at Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights—largely because of the uneven quality of some of the music. But the playing of the IPO under Stilian Kirov was consistently impressive—polished, strongly projected, and bristling with virtuosic energy. As Kirov begins his third season as music director, it is clear that the young maestro is taking his southwest suburban orchestra to a new and exciting level.

The main work on the program was Walter Piston’s Symphony No. 6. In his introduction, Kirov spoke with great sincerity of how he believed Piston to be one of the most unjustly neglected  of American composers, one whose music deserves to be heard and performed much more widely than it is.

Certainly, the exhilarating performance Kirov led of this wonderful work likely introduced many in the audience to Piston’s music. Written for the 75th anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra—and premiered by the BSO under Charles Munch in 1955—the music shows Piston in his best late style—lean, rugged and lyrical without extremes of emotion or ever playing to the gallery.

Kirov’s idiomatic direction was fully inside of Piston’s  deceptively tricky style with the restless rhythmic drive of the opening movement neatly contrasted with the ensuing theme for harps and strings, the latter lentding the right soothing respite. Kirov and colleagues skillfully negotiated the ebb and flow of the long-breathed Adagio, conveying the essence of Piston’s stoic, searching music; the rocky-road syncopations of the final movement went with enormous drive and vitality.

In fact, Piston’s symphony received the finest performance of the night. Oddly—unlike the other three works on the program—the performance didn’t receive the usual, screamed “BRAVO!!!” immediately after the final note by the orchestra’s most aggressively vocal supporter.

What would it sound like if Leroy Anderson—composer of pops-concert staples like Sleigh Ride, Fiddle-Faddle and Bugler’s Holiday— had written a piano concerto? Well, he actually did and Anderson’s Piano Concerto in C Major, performed Saturday by soloist Xiayin Wang with the IPO, is about what one would expect.

Xiayin Wang. Photo: Jenni Klauder

Premiered at the Grant Park Music Festival in 1953 with Eugene List as soloist and Anderson conducting, the concerto received brutal reviews, to the extent that the composer soon withdrew it. Anderson would never write another “serious” concert work, and even left the concerto off his list of complete works. In later years Anderson spoke of revising the concerto but failed to do so before his death in 1975.

Give the IPO credit for initiative in reviving this curio but despite its offbeat qualities and brief 19-minute length, Anderson’s Piano Concerto is a pretty crummy piece. The style hovers unconvincingly between grandly late romantic gestures and the quirk of Anderson’s two-minute pops items. The concerto immediately channels Rachmaninoff in the lush string tune of the opening Allegro, set against cascading solo piano. 

The central Andante offers a lovely poised theme for the soloist, yet Anderson soon dispels the effect by turning all Desi Arnaz and segueing into a jarring samba theme, complete with maracas. Anderson’s confection is endearing at times in its sheer goofiness but a lightness of being dominates, and it’s not hard to understand why the composer was more at home writing pieces like Syncopated Clock.

Soloist Wang delivered fiery advocacy and all the requisite  bravura the score called for, with Kirov drawing sumptuous textures in Anderson’s silver-screen climaxes.

Wang had much better material to work with in George’s Gershwin’s timeless Rhapsody in Blue, which opened the second half. A couple slips apart, Wang brought an impassioned style to Gershwin’s jazzy single-movement concerto and showed herself at home in the populist style, though a less steely approach might have conveyed more of the music’s charms. 

Kirov drew a souped-up accompaniment that at times threatened to bury his soloist. Yet there was no lack of high-stepping panache in the orchestra’s solos—not least Trever O’Riordan’s wonderfully sleazoid clarinet opening.

The early-evening, pre-banquet concert began with a rather grim rendition of the national anthem from the Homewood-Flossmoor High School Brass Choir, before the program’s opener, the world premiere of Ukko by Martha Horst.

It’s a testament to Kirov’s commitment to new music that he has convinced the IPO to not only hire a new composer-in-residence every year but to premiere three works by them throughout the season. Ben Ash was first named to the post last season and this year’s IPO composer-in-residence is Martha Horst, a composition teacher at Illinois State University.

Ukko takes its title and inspiration from the god of thunder in Finnish folk theology. Thunderous would be the word for a piece that begins with massive timpani attacks, leading to scurrying strings, distant thunder percussion rattles, and closing with a brilliant flourish.

Unfortunately, Ukko felt longer than its relatively brief length—heavier on volume than substance with too much of the score feeling like vamping in search of an interesting musical idea. No complaints about the performance with Kirov and the Philharmonic members giving Horst’s work a powerful and spirited debut.

Stilian Kirov conducts the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra in Augusta Read Thomas’s Absolute Ocean and Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 with soprano Emily Birsan 7:30 p.m. November 16. ipomusic.org.

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