Illinois Philharmonic offers moving premiere, neglected American gem

Sun May 14, 2023 at 2:32 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Stilian Kirov led the Illinois PhIlharmonic Orchestra’s season finale Saturday night in Palos Heights.

The Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra’s season finale had a little bit of everything: a deeply felt premiere, a cornerstone European work and a rarely heard American symphony.

The concert, led by music director Stilian Kirov Saturday night at Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights, led off with the debut of Nifrach by the IPO’s outgoing composer in residence, Jonathan Cziner. 

In his spoken introduction, the young composer said the work was inspired by his maternal grandfather who fled the Nazi danger in Europe to find a new home of safety and security in the U.S. Aptly, Nifrach means “We will blossom” in Yiddish.

Scored for strings, Nifrach begins with a delicate, febrile motif for solo violin, which is echoed in the cellos. An expansive consolatory theme, grows in ardor and warmth, leading to an impassioned cello solo. The introspective music returns as does the opening violin theme and the music grows stormy and agitated. After another reprise of both themes the work concludes as it began, with the solo violin fading to silence.

Nifrach could benefit by some judicious pruning, which may focus its expressive power more succinctly. Yet this affecting work, cast in the mode of Barber’s Adagio for Strings, is another impressive achievement by the gifted Cziner, whose Celestial Symphony was premiered by the IPO in November.

Kirov and the IPO strings gave Nifrach an ardent and dedicated debut with standout solo contributions from concertmaster Azusa Tashiro and, especially, principal cellist Jacob Hanegan.

The fact that Cziner’s valedictory work was performed with four instruments from the Violins of Hope project—which restores string instruments played by Jewish musicians before and during the Holocaust—added to the poignance of the occasion.

The balance of the program offered not one, but two Late Romantic symphonies. After a disappointing Brahms outing last month, Kirov and colleagues were back on their top game in the main works Saturday night.

The conductor led a performance of Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8 that ideally blended the bristling drama and pastoral qualities. The IPO woodwinds were largely inspired in their prominent solos and the innumerable beauties of the score made sure impact, rounded off with a brassy burst of adrenaline in a fiery coda.

Kirov has done yeoman work with the IPO by rescuing neglected American scores from oblivion, such as Water Piston’s Symphony No. 6. The Bulgarian conductor did so once again Saturday night, concluding the concert with Amy Beach’s Symphony in E minor, the “Gaelic.”

Amy Beach’s Symphony in E minor was premiered n Boston in 1896. Photo: Library of Congress

The first symphony by a woman to be performed by a major American orchestra, Beach’s work was premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1896 when the composer was 29. The “Gaelic” was Beach’s sole symphony and in later years she concentrated largely on songs, chamber music and piano pieces.

The “Gaelic” symphony is not quite a masterwork, lacking a strong original voice and somewhat garrulous in its working out. Yet the score is unfailingly tuneful and well crafted, scored with skill and fluency. Certainly, it deserves better than its current near-total neglect.

Kirov spoke of his fondness for Beach’s symphony in his introduction and Saturday’s winning performance made a superb case for her neglected opus. The conductor and IPO musicians brought out the gracious lyricism and charm of its lilting melodies—some mined from Irish folk music and others of Beach’s own, including her song, “Dark is the Night.”

The brooding slow movement explores a deeper vein of Celtic gloom, enhanced by Hanegan’s impassioned cello solo. The symphony concludes with a rambling march-like theme and lyrical inversion of the opening horn motif of the first movement. If the climactic reprise of that melody didn’t quite deliver the sumptuousness called for, Kirov and colleagues drove the final bars to a rousing coda.

The IPO musicians perform chamber concerts in Olympia Fields June 14-July 26.

The Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra opens its 2023-24 season October 14 with Márquez’s Danzón 2, Ginastera’s Estancia, and soloist Stella Chen performing Barber’s Violin Concerto and the world premiere of Jonathan Cziner’s Violin Concerto.

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