John Frayne: The fondest of farewells to a great 2012

John Frayne: The fondest of farewells to a great 2012

No doubt about it, the most memorable musical news event of 2012 was the ending by the Pacifica Quartet of the cycle of the string quartets of Ludwig van Beethoven in a concert March 1.

I wondered in a review what other peaks of chamber music the Pacifica would climb after the Beethoven cycle, and also after the trailblazing cycle of the string quartets of Dimitri Shostakovich. The answer to my question came soon after in the news that the Pacifica Quartet was leaving us to take up residence at Indiana University.

Well, the Pacifica members received a warm welcome when they returned for a concert here Nov. 1. And fans of were consoled by the very positive impression made by the incoming Jupiter Quartet at the Allerton Barn Festival in September, as well as at the group's Nov. 13 program in the Foellinger Great Hall at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts.

Another farewell to the Krannert stages was made by Steven Larsen from the leadership of the Champaign-Urbana Symphony Orchestra. Larsen had, from his arrival 17 seasons ago, led the symphony from the brink of dissolving back to a secure position in the musical life of our community. The concert of Jan. 28 featured a relative rarity here: a memorable performance of Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 1, "Titan." At that concert, Stefan Milenkovich played with beguiling tone Camille Saint-Saens' Violin Concerto No. 3.

Larsen's last concert April 19 offered Shostakovich's triumphant Symphony 5.

Early in 2012 (Jan. 20-21), we were treated to a pair of concerts by the world-class Royal Philharmonic Orchestra of London. Jean Ives Thibaudet excelled in two concertos, by Saint-Saens and Franz Liszt, and Charles Dutoit conducted fine readings of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony and Johannes Brahms' First Symphony.

Another celebrity concert April 19 showcased star violin virtuoso Joshua Bell in a double role. He memorably played and conducted Beethoven's Violin Concerto as music director of London's Academy of St. Martin's in the Fields. The balance of the program showed Bell's talents on the podium in a dramatic reading of Beethoven's Symphony No. 7.

It is good to be confronted with what you do not know, and my learning curve of the piano music of Robert Schumann certainly rose during Ian Hobson's playing of Schumann's solo piano music during the 2011-12 season. In 2012-13, Hobson has taken up the formidable challenge of Brahms' piano music, both solo and in chamber collaboration with other musicians. It was in the opening concert of the Brahms series that Hobson was joined by the newly arrived Jupiter Quartet in an exciting reading of the Antonin Dvorak Piano Quintet. (Why not the Brahms Piano Quintet? It was because the Brahms piece was to be played later in the season by the Pacifica with Menahem Pressler at the Nov. 1 concert.)

At the end of the 2012 spring season, Donald Schleicher led the fine University of Illinois Symphony on May 2 in Anton Bruckner's massive Fourth Symphony, the "Romantic." On the same program, William Moersch gave an outstanding display of virtuosity in William Schwantner's "Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra."

And the Baroque Artists of Champaign-Urbana, led by Chester Alwes offered on June 24 a brilliant display of anthems by George Frederic Handel and commemorative music by Henry Purcell.

The Allerton Barn Festival in Monticello offered many delights, this year without stifling heat. It was the festival's first season since the departure of Karl Kramer, who started these concerts. The concert by the Jupiters on Aug. 30 was a strong success, and it was followed by a tuneful and hilarious run-through to W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan's "The Pirates of Penzance," directed by Stephen Fiol.

Early in the fall season, master pianist Emmanuel Ax gave on Sept. 20 a spellbinding recital of sonatas by Beethoven and Schubert.

Then there were two exotic concerts: "The Tao of Bach" on Sept. 13 matched tai chi movements by Chungliang Al Huang with readings of Johann Sebastian Bach's chamber music by local players. And on Oct. 9, many of us had our first encounter with the haunting and lovely world of Georgian choral music in a concert by Ensemble Basiani.

On Oct. 17, the laid-back playing of the National Symphony Orchestra of Cuba was joined to the electrifying piano playing of "Nachito" Herrera.

Reynold Tharp, who teaches composition at the UI School of Music, had his work "Wide sea, changeful heaven" performed on Sept. 22 by the UI Symphony Orchestra, led by Schleicher. This work, played with conviction by the student musicians, made a very positive impression on me.

The concerts of the C-U Symphony Orchestra this season, with the exception of the holiday show, are being conducted by candidates for the music director's post. On Oct. 13, the first candidate, Farkhad Khudyev, scored a popular success with a well conducted "Pastoral Symphony' by Beethoven. His clarinetist brother, Emil, made a positive impression in the clarinet concerto by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

During the summer, the sad news came of the passing of Thomas Schleis, who was for decades an important figure in the Opera Program of the UI School of Music. A concert, organized and conducted by Eduardo Diazmunoz, was given Oct. 21 in the Foellinger Great Hall. An impressive array of groups offered a long and almost overwhelming display of musical talent in one of the most memorable concerts of my experience here. It ranked on the level of the memorial concert for Jerry Hadley in 2008.

Hobson, who never ceases to amaze, gave on Nov. 2 with the Sinfonia da Camera, performances of two Beethoven masterpieces on the same program. Hobson gave a dazzling reading of Beethoven's Concerto No. 5 ("Emperor") and then conducted Beethoven's monumental Ninth Symphony, in which the choral finale was especially memorable. The vocal quartet included Ollie Watts Davis, Viktoria Vizin, Humberto Rivera, and Ricardo Herrera, and the UI Chorale and the UI Oratorio Society, which had been expertly prepared by Fred Stoltzfus.

The appearance on Nov. 6 of London's famous Philharmonia Orchestra gave testimony of how magnificent Hector Berlioz's "Fantastic Symphony" can be when played by a great orchestra with a conductor with the energy and vitality of Esa-Pekka Salonen on the podium.

One of the most delightful offerings by the opera program in recent years was the melodious opera by the late Daniel Catan, "Florencia in the Amazon." I did not know quite what to expect other than that Catan's music would be delightful. But the staging and the performance by a very strong cast of this opera was first rate. I heard it on Nov. 11. And high praise for exposing us to the delights of Catan's music should go to Diazmunoz for his impassioned advocacy of Catan's operas.

And with the arrival of the holiday season, on Nov. 30, I was delighted yet once more by the C-U Ballet's communal performance of Tchaikovsky's ballet, "The Nutcracker," with the highly pleasurable playing of the score by the Sinfonia da Camera, conducted by Hobson. Deanna Doty, director of the C-U Ballet, along with all the many others involved in these performances, deserve the highest praise for their work.

This year's CUSO holiday concert, conducted by Daniel Black (Dec. 13), and BACH's Christmas concert, conducted by Alwes at Holy Cross Church (Dec. 16) left me, and I am sure many others, with a warm holiday glow.

There were many other fine musical events this past year in our community, and I regret that my space to praise them in this survey is limited. We are indeed blessed in this community with many opportunities to enjoy the riches of classical music, and I look forward to another year of musical pleasures.

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 frayne@illinois.edu.

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