Illinois Philharmonic opens season with an American triptych

Sun Oct 17, 2021 at 10:06 am

By Lawrence A. Johnson

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

As live music with live audiences returns to local stages, most attention inevitably centers on the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Lyric Opera.

But a plethora of worthy suburban ensembles are also reopening their concerts to in-person audiences this month, including the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra, which launched its season Saturday night in Palos Heights.

The increasingly familiar scrum line of patrons scrambling for their vax documentation snaked out the door of Ozinga Hall at Trinity Christian College. More dire was the fact that the IPO’s ticketing machine had broken down, leading to a polite but somewhat chaotic scene at Will Call. The orchestra’s executive director Christina Salerno gamely assisted, writing out patron seat assignments and escorting late arrivals to their seats. Even with the complications, the concert managed to start only about ten minutes late.

Despite being billed as the full Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra, Saturday’s season-opening program only offered a total of 13 players on stage and just nine string players for the first half. (Even the program note indicated a string orchestra for one work.) In his opening remarks, the IPO’s engaging music director Stilian Kirov promised the orchestral roster would grow in size as the season progressed.

If anyone was disappointed by the bite-size forces, it wasn’t apparent Saturday with the performances drawing rousing ovations from the Illinois Philharmonic’s vociferously enthusiastic audience.

Under Kirov’s leadership, the IPO has spotlighted American music to an extent that shames most other symphonic ensembles. So it was again in this season-opening program, which offered three homegrown works with a genuine diversity of music and presentation.

The suddenly omnipresent Florence Price was represented with the Andante Moderato movement from her String Quartet, which led off the evening. 

Conducted by Kirov, the well-balanced string ensemble (double quartet and bass) brought out the folkish lyricism of the lovely main theme. There was a graceful segue into the canter of the middle section and a heart-easing reprise of the opening music. Fine as the sumptuous performance of the same music was by Riccardo Muti and the CSO three weeks ago, Price’s intimacy of expression felt more naturally eloquent in this chamber-sized rendition.

Kirov has consistently championed music of not-dead American composers and such was the case with the evening’s centerpiece, Eric Ewazen’s Down a River of Time.

An oboe concerto in all but name, Ewazen’s work inhabits a lyrical pastoral style shaded by melancholy—think of an American Gerald Finzi. If there is not much contrast in the gently varied three movements, Ewazen’s concert is well-crafted and unfailingly attractive.

Naomi Bensdorf Frisch was the solo protagonist. The IPO’s principal oboist played with fluency and what seemed like attentiveness to the score. Yet while her playing was technically capable, it was also unrelievedly bland with little individuality or variance of color or dynamics. One suspects a more personality-plus soloist would have found greater charm in this score and made a stronger overall case. Kirov and the string ensemble brought more expressive light and shade to their opportunities.

The evening concluded with Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring. In a notable departure, Copland’s celebrated work was performed not in the familiar suite but in the complete original ballet version for 13 players and with the partnership of the Joffrey Academy of Dance.

This kind of one-night collaboration rarely comes off. But the partnership worked quite successfully, providing a rare opportunity to experience Copland’s score in the form in which it was conceived and first presented.

With the chamber orchestra scrunched together on the right side of the stage to make room for the dancers, Kirov led a performance that, once again, showed his innate sympathy with the American idiom. His direction drew a rendering that evoked the tender lyricism, rustic rhythms and loneliness of this score. Kirov was especially inspired at bringing out the stark power and bleakness of the darker section near the end of the ballet—jettisoned for the suite by Copland—which gives the music a richer and somewhat more tragic profile. Most of the IPO members played solidly, though the performance was bedeviled by fitfully pitchy string intonation, wavery flute solos and some jarringly maladroit piano playing.

The Terpsichorean element proved more polished and consistent. The dance performance dispensed with Martha Graham’s original choreography for a modern take by Yoshihisa Arai with the Joffrey dancers all dressed in white. 

If any deeper thread of meaning in Arai’s revisionist choreography remained largely inscrutable, the dancers’ graceful movements were always impeccably matched to Copland’s music. The violent seizure-like spasms and unintelligible shouts that accompanied the darkest passage were especially striking. 

All 14 dancers of the Joffrey Academy—the company’s training program for young artists—displayed impressively mature, professional-level artistry in their ensemble dancing and individual moments. 

In his opening remarks, Kirov paid tribute to Fred Kuester, the orchestra’s longtime principal bass who retired at the start of last season. The New Lenox resident had been a member of the IPO since its inception and played in every season for 42 years.

The Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra’s next concert takes place 7:30 p.m. November 13 and features Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for winds and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8.

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