John Frayne: Jupiters impressive; Prairie Ensemble and guests a success
The Jupiter Quartet, now in its first year of residency at the University of Illinois, gave a varied and dramatic program of chamber music Nov. 13 in the Foellinger Great Hall at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. I had heard the Jupiters' debut concert at the Allerton Barn Festival a few months ago, but I believe that this was their first full-length concert at Krannert.
This group, consisting of Nelson Lee, violin; Meg Freivogel, violin; Liz Freivogel, viola; and Daniel McDonough, cello, opened the program with Joseph Haydn's Quartet in E-Flat Major, Op. 33, No. 2.
This quartet has earned the nickname "The Joke" from the humorous turns in the finale, but its joking tone might also stem from Haydn's replacement of the traditional minuet movement with a scherzo movement.
It was a pleasure to hear in a lighthearted reading by the Jupiters, who emphasized the clarity and grace of the music.
Before the second work, Alban Berg's String Quartet, Op. 3, McDonough expressed thanks to the Champaign-Urbana musical community for the warm welcome this quartet has received in coming into our cities. He also introduced the Berg quartet in terms designed apparently to defuse anxieties about hearing a work from the atonal school, headed by Arnold Schoenberg.
Members of the quartet played motifs from the quartet to prepare us for its complexities. That such an introduction for a work composed in 1910 is deemed advisable says something about the reaction of average audiences to the Second Viennese School. As Hamlet put it, "'Twas caviare to the general."
I have always liked the music of Berg. This 1910 quartet has some daring features, such as the rasping noises produced in the first movement. The second movement is a wild, free-for-all of conflicting emotions. The Jupiters gave a strong, impassioned reading, which led to a climactic finish that evoked whoops of joy from audience members for whom Berg held no terrors.
The balance of the program was devoted to the long Quartet No. 15 in G Major, D. 887 by Franz Schubert. This work is a far cry from the melodic luxuriance of Schubert's "Trout" Quintet, or the "Death and the Maiden" Quartet. It has an epic sternness about it, as if it were a sketch for a grandiose symphony like Schubert's "Great" C Major.
The Jupiter Quartet gave an intense and eloquent account of this work, and the cello playing of McDonough stood out. In the jiggling finale, the catchy tune was bandied back and forth excitingly between McDonough and Lee. After the stirring finale, many in the audience stood. After such "heavenly lengths," why should one want an encore?
Prairie Ensemble opens season
The Prairie Ensemble, led by Kevin Kelly, gave it first concert of this season, entitled "America's Music," on Nov. 16 at Faith United Methodist Church. The first part of the program offered three rather short pieces by "classical" composers who leaned toward folk music and jazz.
On the second half of the program, the balance shifted more to jazz, with two performers who teach jazz at UI's School of Music, pianist Chip Stephens and tenor saxophonist Chip McNeill.
Henry Cowell's "Saturday Night at the Firehouse," evoked dances given at firehouses in the 1930s. Cowell used original, fragmentary tunes in a lively evocation of folksy good times.
Henry F. Gilbert's "Suite for String Orchestra" followed. Gilbert's music was unknown to me. He lived from 1868 to 1928, and he has the distinction of being one of the first to use African-American themes in his music. And the slow movement of his suite is entitled "Spiritual." This suite recalled the music of Edward McDowell and at times reminded me of early Jean Sibelius. As a whole it had many attractive turns, but it perhaps went on too long. The prominent horn part was skillfully played by Katherine McBain.
John Harbison's "Remembering Gatsby: Foxtrot for Orchestra" evokes the Roaring Twenties with peppy, brightly orchestrated passages redolent of the Jazz Age, and it received a lively reading from the Prairie Ensemble.
And in Part 2, we had mostly jazz. In the first group of three numbers, Stephens at the piano, and McNeill on sax did improvisations of three classic tunes: Howard Arlen's "Blues in the Night," Charlie Chaplin's "Smile," and Charlie Parker's "She Rote."
The members of the Prairie Ensemble played lush, romantic versions of these songs, and the two Chips improvised on the melodies. The playing of Stephens and McNeill I found fresh, exciting and of virtuoso quality. McNeill's vocals were amplified to a high volume, which my ears told me were too loud.
The climax of the evening was an original jazz band version of George Gershwin's masterpiece "Rhapsody in Blue." It was refreshing to hear Solomon Baer's clarinet giving a jazz inflection to the famous opening glissando, and the sound of the groaning tuba and the "wha-wha" of the trumpets reinforced the air of authenticity.
Stephens offered brilliant improvisations which were added to the piano solos of the Gershwin original. Toward the end Stephens was joined by two players in an extended improv that made me wonder when we would return to Gershwin.
Well, we eventually did, and the slam-bang ending of the Gershwin brought audience members leaping to their feet. Obviously, Kelly's joining of the classical and jazz streams of American music was a roaring success.
Stephens chose to play as encore Gershwin's tune, "Love is Here to Stay," dedicating it to his mother, who was in the audience. McNeill joined his sax to the matching riffs, and the evening ended in a warm glow.
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.