John Frayne: CUSO candidate gets the art of the crescendo

In the first concert of the spring season by the Champaign-Urbana Symphony Orchestra, the guest conductor was David Commanday, who is currently the conductor of the Heartland Festival Orchestra in Peoria.

Commanday is the second candidate for the music director position at the C-U Symphony. The first candidate, Farkhad Khudyev led a concert in what seems a long time ago (Oct. 13). The third (Alexander Platt) and fourth (Stephen Alltop) candidates will appear Feb. 10 and March 9, respectively.

If you were a candidate for a conductor's job, what kind of music would you play? Gioachino Rossini is supposed to have said, "There are two kinds of music, good music and the boring kind." Well, leaving aside the "boring kind," I imagine that you would play music that would evoke an enthusiastic response from your audience. And nothing brings an audience to their feet like a brilliant, high-volume, clangorous end to a composition.

Commanday chose four pieces, all of which had attractive, accessible qualities, ranging from famous staples to lesser known but highly pleasing works.

I have in the past complained about performers in the Foellinger Great Hall at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts speaking without amplification from the stage, and as a result being mostly unintelligible. Not so Commanday. With microphone in hand, he offered interesting remarks before each piece, and every word could be clearly heard. And the soloist of the evening, Adam Neiman, joined him for an illuminating discussion of Maurice Ravel's Piano Concerto in G. But a word of caution: The best place for basic information is the program notes. There the concertgoer can read as much or little as he or she likes.

The program opened with George Gershwin's "Cuban Overture," and Commanday led a rhythmically vital performance with especially fine work from the percussion section. I heard this work recently as played by a Cuban orchestra in Foellinger. The Cubans played it with idiomatic gusto, but the CUSO performance seemed to me more polished.

Neiman displayed awesome virtuosity in the jazzy Concerto in G by Ravel. In his remarks, Neiman stressed the hypnotic quality of the slow movement in the style of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and his playing of this movement conveyed spell-binding intensity.

When the orchestra finally joined the piano, the solo instruments played with admirable style, and Katherine Gunn's English horn solo earned her a bow. The whiplash finale was brilliantly played by Neiman, and after the wow finish many in the balcony stood in appreciation.

The second part of the program started with yet another overture, this time the iconic and widely traveled overture to Rossini's masterpiece "The Barber of Seville." Commanday led the orchestra in the finely honed crescendos for which Rossini was famous. The playing of the strings displayed fine tone and admirable ensemble discipline.

That something special was in store for us in the finale of the program was evident from the brass players assembling in the side balcony. Ottorino Respighi's sonic pictures in "The Pines of Rome" are perhaps the most famous demonstration of his wizardry as an orchestrator. The opening section, "The Pines of the Villa Borghese" had brilliant solos by woodwinds and brass.

The "Catacombs" section highlighted the lower strings — and a haunting muted trumpet solo offstage. The "Janiculum" section had evocative playing by soloists, especially the piano and the celesta, leading up to the real song of an uncredited nightingale.

But all this was only prologue to the "Pines of the Appian Way," with its ghostly march of ancient Roman legions returning home in triumph. Commanday led the orchestral forces, high and low, in a powerful and moving long crescendo.

The only problem here is that there is a limit to loudness, and that limit was reached at the apocalyptic finale of the Respighi. At the end, feral cheers rang out, and all stood. One last question: Does Peoria allow conductors to return in triumph on Interstate 74?

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I went to a replay of the Met's HD showing at the Savoy 16 of Giuseppe Verdi's masterpiece, "Aida." There was strong singing from Roberto Alagna as Radames, fine-spun pianissimi from new comer Liudmyla Monastryska as Aida, and a very sexy Amneris from rich-voiced Olga Borodina. (Are the Slavs taking over the Met?)

George Gagnidze (from Georgia) as Amonasro rolled his eyes in splendid silent movie acting. Fabio Luisi, the only Italian in sight, conducted in exciting but nuanced style.

The first act temple scene is my favorite, but the circus-like triumphal scene is fun, especially when one of the ponies won't behave. The final scene was deeply moving, reaffirming the ever-renewed appeal of this great opera. But the talkathons at these theater presentations seem endless.

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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