Young cellist and a world premiere light up Illinois Philharmonic concert

Sun Nov 13, 2022 at 6:18 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Oliver Herbert performed Haydn’s Cello Concerto in C major with the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra Saturday night in Palos Heights.

The second program of the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra’s season offered a populist lineup that centered on music from or inspired by the Classical era.

The odd work out Saturday night at Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights was the world premiere of the Celestial Symphony by Jonathan Cziner. The first fruit of Cziner’s appointment as the IPO’s new composer in residence, the symphony was inspired in equal parts by the cosmos and Beethoven.

The first movement, ”Neblulae,” is the longest of the 20-minute work, opening with hushed strings and then seguing into high winds. A rising theme becomes a leitmotiv of sorts, first presented in lower strings against chattering woodwinds. The music accelerates as strident brass chords crash against angular string pizzicatos. The material is repeated and reaches a climax. A keening cello solo appears, high on the fretboard, and the music works its way to a place of elemental power and an emphatic final chord.

The brief second movement, “Heaven and Earth,” is in a scherzo-like mode with odd harmonics and string effects set against antic woodwinds. There is a clear satiric quality here and the work ends with gleaming high percussion.

The finale (“sternenzelt”) opens with horns taking up the rising theme in majestic yet unhackneyed fashion. The chirping winds reprise against a rhapsodic violin solo, well played by concertmaster Azusa Tashiro. The music builds in tempo and intensity against rolling timpani, eventually reaching a peak. The rising theme is heard in a grand iteration for horns and strings together that brings a true sense of catharsis before a quiet mysterious ending that suggest something of the infinite cosmos.

The final movement is a bit episodic and might benefit from a bit of tightening. But this is an impressive work and a terrific debut from the IPO’s new composer in residence. Cziner, 31, is a composer with an individual voice and the knowledge and technique to convey his ideas in a striking and kaleidoscopic manner.

Jonathan Cziner’s Celestial Symphony was given its world premiere by the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra Saturday night.

Music director Stilian Kirov and the musicians gave this substantial world premiere a committed, well-prepared and powerful sendoff. One looks forward to hearing more from this talented composer as the season continues.

The evening’s solo protagonist was Oliver Herbert who took the stage for Haydn’s Cello Concerto in C major.

A graduate of the Curtis Institute and the Colburn School, he studied with Carter Brey, Clive Greensmith, and Peter Wiley. Winner of an Avery Fisher Career Grant last year, the 25-year-old cellist is the son of Chicago Symphony Orchestra principal timpanist David Herbert, who was in the house Saturday night.

The young cellist clearly has a bright future in front of him. Playing a magnificent Guadagnini instrument once owned by Antonio Janigro, Herbert displayed a winning stage presence and musical style. There were a few isolated pitchy notes and in the virtuosic finale one would have liked the soloist to push out more volume, which fitfully hovered on the edge of audibility.

But this was an engaging and mostly technically fluent performance. The young soloist consistently beguiled the ear with his nimble and individual phrasing, often making hairpin dynamic turns that always sounded convincing.

Herbert cast a spell in the Adagio with spacious and communicative playing that made the slow movement into an intimate reverie. The soloist was off to the races in the Allegro molto finale—emphasis on the molto—with accurate playing at a remarkably fast tempo that put across the brilliance of the solo writing in exhilarating fashion.  

Clearly inspired by their young soloist, Kirov and the IPO members backed Herbert with equally fiery playing in support.

The evening led off with the Overture from Mozart’s comic singspiel The Impresario, which received a weighty and lumbering performance distinctly short on charm.

The ersatz Classical of Sergei Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 1 fared better. If the mordant wit of the score didn’t always come through, Kirov led a vital and polished reading of the “Classical” symphony, with the finale dashed off in fleet, scintillating style to close the evening.

The Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra performs Handel’s Messiah 3 p.m. December 17.

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