John Frayne: CUSO candidate impressive; Sinfonia shines

John Frayne: CUSO candidate impressive; Sinfonia shines

Alexander Platt is the third conductor to be heard from in the search for the successor to Steven Larsen on the podium for Champaign-Urbana Symphony Orchestra. Platt is a conductor of wide experience, especially with regional orchestras in the Midwest, and his Feb. 10 performance ended with a bang.

The concert opened with a sympathetic reading of "The Pleasure-Dome of Kubla Khan," one of the best-known works by Charles Tomlinson Griffes, a talented American composer who died in 1920 at age 36. This piece was inspired by Samuel Taylor Coleridge's 1797 poem "Kubla Khan."

Griffes' work drew fine playing from the woodwinds, and at the work's end, Platt called for bows for solos by the first violinist, Igor Kalnin, and players of the piano and celesta.

The interpretation by Platt of Claude Debussy's "Prelude to 'The Afternoon of a Faun'" emphasized clarity in the interweaving of melodic lines, and there were waves of luxurious sound at the work's climax. At the end, the lovely fading away of the melodies played by flutist Mary Leathers Chapman and oboist John Dee gained them well-deserved bows.

Pianist William Wolfram joined Platt and the orchestra for a resounding and lyrically melting performance of Edvard Grieg's Piano Concerto in A Minor. This may be one of the best-loved concertos of the 19th century, but one does not hear it all that often in the concert hall.

Wolfram played the virtuoso passages of this work with great bravura, and his gentle handling of the sweet melodies of the slow movement was quite touching. Particularly in the finale the give and take between soloist and orchestra led to an exciting conclusion.

Platt devoted the second half of his program to Symphony No. 2, "The Four Temperaments," by Danish composer Carl Nielsen (1865-1931). The musical illustration of the classic four temperaments, Choleric, Phlegmatic, Melancholic and Sanguine, has the virtues of offering clear contrasts and guiding audience expectations. But I wonder if the storm and stress of the first movement expresses the word "choleric" or rather "bombastic." The music of the second movement expressing "phlegmatic" was, alas, just that. To be blunt, the music is rather boring.

Platt appears to like to call for explosive crescendos from the orchestra, and the "Sanguine" finale gave him wide scope for evoking orchestral fireworks. Nielsen had a strong satiric streak in him, and the "oom-pa" wind band passages of the finale, followed by moments of exaltation, well characterized the sanguine man who is forever riding highs and falling into lows.

The final triumphal passage evoked strong applause from the Foellinger audience, a reaction that suggested a positive impression left by Platt for his conducting skills.

Sinfonia, with help, gives compelling performance of 'Planets'

The Sinfonia da Camera, led by founder Ian Hobson, swelled from its usual chamber orchestra size to that of a large orchestra for a compelling performance Feb. 16 of Gustav Holst's masterpiece suite, "The Planets." For the final evocation of Neptune's mysteries, the women of the UI Women's Glee Club, ably led by Andrea Solya, sang ghostly and wordless passages offstage to glide the end of Holst's work into outer darkness and silence. And the concert ended with Colin Matthews' "Pluto, the Renewer," composed in 2000 as a complement to Holst's work.

The evening began with a small group of Sinfonia players sitting in a sea of empty chairs as they played Darius Milhaud's music for a ballet called "The Creation of the World." This 1923 work is famous for its pioneering use of jazz rhythms in a classical piece. The sound of jazz was immediately suggested at the beginning of this piece by the excellent playing of the saxophone by Debra Richtmeyer. Evoking African folk accounts of creation, the creators of this ballet used explosive jazzy passages to suggest the bringing of order out of chaos. Hobson and the ensemble conveyed the inventive charm of this work with especially fine playing by clarinetist J. David Harris.

The array of players assembled for "The Planets" was awesome. Seven horns! Two harps, and two sets of tympani! Were we about to ascend an Alp with Richard Strauss, or play one of Gustav Mahler's mammoth symphonies? No, the assembled strings, winds and brass had the job of conveying Holst's musical depiction of the spirits of the planets.

The performance as a whole was a glorious success, from the "Sturm und Drang" of Mars to the whispers of Neptune. Many excellent solo and group passages were performed by all concerned. My favorite moments were the exquisite combination of timbres near the end of "Saturn" and the climactic trumpeting of the raucous "Uranus."

The offstage singing of the glee club was a major positive contribution to the final sense of awe in which Holst suggested the immensity of the universe.

But I wonder about Matthews' piece. "Pluto" somewhat diminishes the wonderful effect of Holst's ending, and frankly, Matthews' level of melodic invention is not up to Holst's. Still, I am grateful for the opportunity to hear this pairing, once.

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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