IPO pays tribute to a beloved colleague with no strings attached

Sun Apr 16, 2023 at 12:38 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Soloists Matthew Lipman, Sonia Mantell and Emily Lewis Mantell performed David Popper’s Requiem with the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra Saturday night in Palos Heights. Photo: Ned Rissky

The Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra paid a heartfelt tribute to a popular departed musician Saturday night at Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights.

Matthew Mantell, one of Chicago’s most active freelance players, was principal violist of the south suburban IPO for 25 years. The longtime Orland Park resident was also a beloved and generous teacher to many before his passing from cancer in 2019. Family, friends, colleagues and former students were on hand to honor Mantell and his legacy with spoken reminiscences and, in the most appropriate way, with music.

The first half of the program, aptly, was entirely for string orchestra with three soloists: the fast-rising violist Matthew Lipman, a former Mantell student; Emily Lewis Mantell, his wife and longtime IPO principal cello; and Sonia Mantell, their daughter, who is currently a member of the Minnesota Orchestra cello section.

Jessie Montgomery’s Strum is quickly becoming a repertory piece for string quartets and ensembles. Rightfully so, since this work by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s current composer-in-residence is a gem—blending folkish Americana with off-kilter energy in an engaging mix that is as rewarding for string musicians as it is enjoyable for audiences. Music director Stilian Kirov led a spirited performance, drawing bracing clarity and articulation in the syncopated string writing.

Saturday’s IPO concert honored the orchestra’s longtime principal violist Matthew Mantell.

In Jose Bragato’s Graciela y Buenos Aires for cello and strings, Sonia Mantell brought rich tone and agility to this tango-flavored work—a family favorite, she said—with notably spacious phrasing in the cadenza. 

David Popper’s Requiem for three cellos and string orchestra was heard in a revised version with Lipman playing the high cello part on the viola and joining the mother-and-daughter Mantell cellists. A certain tonal symmetry is sacrificed in the arrangement but for this one-off occasion, all three soloists blended with skill and brought moving expression to Popper’s valedictory music.

It’s not every concert that offers a bonus work by Paul Hindemith. The violist-composer’s Trauermusik was famously written in six hours for a BBC radio broadcast following the death of King George V.  Lipman brought warmly expressive gravitas to this somber meditation for viola and orchestra with Kirov and the strings providing sympathetic support.

Violist Matthew Lipman performed music of Paul Hindemith and Sarah Estilo Saturday night. Photo: Ned Rissky.

In many ways, the most striking performance came in the form of a double tribute by two former Mantell students—composer Sarah Estilo’s Conflict Concerto performed by Lipman. The title, says the composer, reflects “the conflicts and trials that cloud our lives and the grief we go through with the passing of loved ones.” The Conflict Concerto is dedicated to Mantell “to honor the teacher who changed my life,” said Estilo.

The title is something of a misnomer since Estilo’s work is cast in a single slow movement and there is not much musical conflict in it. But the elegiac inspiration is manifest from the hushed opening bars and the main theme for solo viola is a long, soaring melody that rises to an impassioned climax with the backing string orchestra. Estilo’s impressive work was beautifully played by Lipman and sensitively directed by Kirov. The 23-year-old composer, currently a student at UIC, was in the house to acknowledge the warm applause for her music. 

The only questionable element in IPO’s tribute was presentational. The concert began 15 minutes late with an extended promotional video for the Suburban Youth Symphony Orchestra. No doubt this organization is doing good work introducing young people to playing instruments and classical music. But the video felt overlong and out of place. Wouldn’t it have made more sense to have the (relatively brief) video homage to Matt Mantell introduce the musical tributes rather than coming after intermission? 

The second half was devoted to the sole large work of the evening, Brahms’ Symphony No. 3. The Third is the shortest of the composer’s works in the genre, yet its equivocal moods, relative lack of roiling drama, and quiet ending make it the most interpretively difficult of the four to pull off.

So it proved again Saturday night with a capable performance of Brahms’ Third Symphony that felt like a decided work in progress. 

Stilian Kirov is one of those rare conductors who draws consistently successful results across a wide range of repertory. Yet pacing and balancing seemed strangely off Saturday. With five different works on the first half, all but one with soloists, it’s not too hard to believe that the Brahms got the short end of rehearsal time.

The famous upward surge of the opening bars felt heavy-footed and lacking in sweep and urgency. The IPO strings, usually darkly resplendent in tone, looked lighter than usual in numbers on stage and sounded thin as well. High wind tuning was fitfully errant.

In the inner movements dynamics felt ironed out with the Andante lacking hushed concentration and the Poco Allegretto emerging sluggish. The finale went best with a belated sense of energy and dramatic tension. Kirov handled the tricky decrescendo and final slowdown skillfully only to have the winds bury crucial string lines in the concluding bars.

The Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra concludes its season 7:30 p.m. May 13 at Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights. The program includes Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8, Amy Beach’s Symphony in E minor, and a world premiere by IPO composer-in-residence Jonathan Cziner. ipomusic.org 

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