What do the Ensemble Basiani and the opening concert of the Champaign-Urbana Symphony Orchestra season have in common? Answer: the Caspian Sea.
The Basiani group comes from Georgia, which fronts on the western side of the Caspian, and the first candidate for the conductor's post of the Symphony, Farkhad Khudyev, is from Turkmenistan, on the eastern side of the sea. There the resemblance ends.
The Ensemble Basiani gave an intriguing and gripping program of Georgian choral singing on Oct. 9, and Khudyev conducted the symphony in an exciting program of Brahms, Mozart and Beethoven on Oct. 13, both events in the Foellinger Great Hall at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts.
On Oct. 9, 12 members of Ensemble Basiani sang a program of 18 numbers that ranged from sacred music to work songs to love songs. As unfamiliar as this music is to me, the brilliant and stirring contrapuntal interweaving of these voices left a moving and memorable impression on me.
A variety of scale was achieved by varying the number of singers delivering the pieces, from trios to songs involving two singers working against a group of five or six, and occasionally everyone got into the act. The results were sometimes akin to Russian liturgical chants or to Renaissance Flemish polyphony.
My favorite number was "Shen Khar Venakhi" ("You are a vineyard,") the Iambus of the Holy Virgin. Here the soft singing of the group wove a magical spell. And yes, the circle dances, with clapping, provided an astringent contrast.
My knowledge of the Georgian language is restricted to the observation that many names end in "-vili" and others end in "-dze." I presume that most of the audience could not understand the words being sung. The copious notes gave background information, and translations of some of the words.
But the lights in Foellinger were turned down, and there we sat, with unreadable programs on our laps. I moved over to the left wall of the balcony, where dim lighting allowed me to follow the texts. Cannot something be done about this situation?
Some of the numbers received strong applause, and at the end of the program many stood and applauded. The Basiani group complied with an encore in which the music moved ever faster and faster.
After the concert, as the Basiani singers signed CDs, many of them stood around, each holding a wine bottle. "An old Georgian post-concert custom?" thought I.
Well, I am told that at a reception afterward, those present were treated to a sampling of Georgian wine. I hope it was as heady as the singing!
On Oct. 13, the process of selecting a new CUSO conductor began. The candidate on Saturday evening was Khudyev, who came to the United States in 2001, and gained his bachelor's degree at the Oberlin Conservatory and his master's in conducting from the Yale School of Music, where he was quite active as a conductor.
The idea of beginning the program with Johannes Brahms' Third Symphony and concluding it with Ludwig van Beethoven's Sixth ("Pastoral") Symphony might seem odd, but the Brahms work ends softly, and the "Pastoral" Symphony has a glowing and resounding finish. Good psychology: Leave them smiling.
Khudyev's approach to the Brahms Third was expansive, with slow and majestic tempi. To some the pace might have seemed a bit too slow, but along the way Khudyev brought out the richness of the burnished melodies and the grand climaxes. All the choirs of the symphony sounded excellent, with the woodwinds and horns both standouts. The autumnal mood of this work well matched Saturday's weather.
Khudyev brought along his younger brother, Emil, who is a brilliant clarinet virtuoso. The brothers Khudyev joined in a delightful performance of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Clarinet Concerto in A Major.
From Emil's vita it would appear that he is a rising star among clarinet players, and his technical mastery of the virtuoso passages of the Mozart Concerto was very impressive. The gem of this work is the mesmerizing slow movement, and Emil Khudyev spun out the lovely line of Mozart's melody with masterly skill.
What was especially delightful in his playing was his habit of swooping down with the melodic line and slowly rising while playing his way up through the clarinet's registers. The brilliant end of the Rondo finale brought Emil Khudyev a standing ovation. Members of the Khudyev family were present at the concert, and we were told that Emil is soon to be married in Chicago. Multiple congratulations would seem to be in order!
The "Pastoral" strikes me as some of the happiest music ever written. It radiates the joys of the countryside from opening phrase to the last diminuendo.
Farkhad Khudyev took the opening movement at a brisk pace, and he led the symphony throughout in a most enjoyable reading.
All four woodwind principals were outstanding: Mary Leathers Chapman, flutist; John Dee, oboist; David Gresham, clarinet; and Timothy McGovern, bassoon. They excelled in the bird calls that end the slow movement, as well as the imitation of a village band in the Scherzo.
In the storm that follows, tympanist William Morsch unleashed shattering thunder claps. The horns did a fine job, and Marc Zyla, principal, excelled in his moment of glory when the solo horn starts the hymn of thanksgiving after the storm. And all the rest of the symphony had an excellent evening.
At the "Pastoral's" end, most of the audience stood in appreciation of Khudyev's and the orchestra's effort. The candidate made a strong impression.
John Frayne hosts "Classics of the Phonograph" on Saturdays at WILL-FM and, in retirement, teaches at the University of Illinois. He can be reached at email@example.com.