Illinois Philharmonic opens season with a fiddle feast and world premiere

Sun Oct 15, 2023 at 2:12 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Stella Chen performed violin concertos by Barber and Jonathan Cziner with the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra Saturday night in Palos Heights.

A gala orchestra concert usually means brief yet brilliant showpieces designed to keep the performance short and patrons sated just enough to still enjoy the hors d’oeuvres and skirt steak at the post-concert repast.

There were indeed colorful showpieces in the offing at the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra’s season-opening concert Saturday night at Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights. But there was also something more—two, count ’em, two violin concertos performed by Stella Chen, including a world premiere by the IPO’s former composer-in-residence Jonathan Cziner.

Solaris is the title of Cziner’s new work, a violin concerto in all but name. Cast in a single movement, the title reflects the young composer’s keen interest in cosmological matters as witness his compelling Celestial Symphony premiered by IPO last year.

The soloist opens Solaris with a plaintive theme set against elliptical, quasi-celestial high percussion. The violinist continues for a while in this moody, ruminative, somewhat discursive vein. Emphatic chords in the low brass usher in faster music. As the tempo accelerates, the solo writing becomes more virtuosic, and the violinist engages in quick alternation of bowed notes and pizzicatos. A series of rising chords increase the momentum leading to a majestic orchestral climax.

A lovely new theme for violin, given ardent treatment by Chen, receives lush iteration in the orchestra. The fast music returns, leading to more rhapsodic flights by the soloist and a bravura coda.

Solaris is yet another engaging work by Cziner, cast in his increasingly neo-Romantic style. Though the concerto is just 15 minutes long, some tightening on the front end could make it more effective; the opening pages tend to meander and the musical argument takes a while to find its footing.

No cavils about the playing of soloist Chen who gave Cziner’s new work supreme advocacy. The violinist sailed through the complexities and gave its impassioned flights full-throated lyricism in music that, Cziner said, was inspired by Chen’s “artistry and infectious personality.” Kirov and the IPO provided equally attentive and sympathetic support.

One of the most heartening musical developments of recent decades is seeing Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto make its way from the repertorial fringes into a concert hall mainstay.

Chen was nearly as convincing in Barber’s popular opus, with her silvery timbre especially well suited to the inward lyricism of the first two movements. The fireworks of the moto perpetuo finale were dispatched flawlessly—albeit at a slightly cautious tempo—though a larger violin tone and firmer projection would have provided more visceral excitement. Here too Kirov and the IPO players lent vital and simpatico orchestral support.

The concert, titled “Music of the Americas.” led off with Arturo Marquez’s greatest hit, the inescapable Danzon No. 2. Kirov led a lively and engaging performance, highlighted by a sinuous opening clarinet solo played by Claire Werling. (Someday an enterprising orchestra  is going to program the Mexican composer’s mysterious Danzon No. 1.)

Alberto Ginastera’s Estancia closed the evening. The Four Dances from the Argentinian composer’s 1952 ballet were given suitably fizzing performances under Kirov. Evocative solos by flutist Cynthia Fudala and concertmaster Azusa Tashiro highlighted the “Danza del trigo” and Kirov ensured that the quirky off-center rhythms of the “Danza final” built to a thunderous coda.


It is disappointing to see IPO get on the cost-cutting bandwagon of eliminating program notes. Having a single paragraph for each work with instructions to visit the IPO website for the rest of the information doesn’t cut it—not with a world premiere on the menu. The lone graph for the Danzon No. 2 doesn’t even mention Marquez nor the piece being played.

It’s great that IPO can fill a 36-page program with bounteous advertising. But if room can also be found for profiles of board members and full-page welcome notes from the Trinity College president and the mayor of Palos Heights, is it asking too much to provide concertgoers with essential information about the music?

The Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra performs Mozart’s “Gran Partita” and Piazzolla’s Four Seasons of Buenos Aires with soloist Azusa Tashiro 7:30 p.m. November 18.

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