John Frayne: Chicago group, British import both impress

John Frayne: Chicago group, British import both impress

The April 20 concert by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, led by music director Riccardo Muti, was a tremendous success, easily the outstanding concert thus far of the 2012-13 season.

Foellinger Great Hall at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts was filled to the rafters, expectations ran high and we in the audience were not disappointed.

The orchestra showed itself as an ensemble of extraordinary power and sensitivity, especially when led with as masterful a hand as Muti's, clearly one of the greatest maestros now before the public.

The program was an unusual one. There was no dazzling virtuoso, playing a famous concerto, no staggering orchestral display piece (no "Pics at an Ex.", no "Daphnis and Chloe"), just great music, superbly played.

Symphony No. 38, "Prague," by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is easily in the top rank of symphonic masterpieces by that towering genius.

And Symphony No. 4 by Ludwig van Beethoven, although usually overshadowed by the volcanic No. 3 ("Eroica") and No. 5 that precede and follow it, is a masterpiece with unique charms all its own.

The evening began with Antonio Vivaldi's Concerto in A Major for Strings and Continuo, and in this happy and spritely work the orchestra strings were led by Muti through an appealing reading, with many deft interpretive twists.

But that was but prologue to the moving grandeur of Mozart's "Prague."

Muti and the orchestra offered a deeply felt and gentle interpretation of this famously serious work. Yes, there was tension and fire in the more dramatic sections of this "Symphony without Minuet," but the prevailing feeling for me as a sense of laughter through tears.

Muti is justly famous as an opera conductor, and under his baton, the second move- ment especially resembled one of the great finale ensembles of "The Marriage of Figaro" and "Don Giovanni," works written at the same point in Mozart's career.

The Beethoven piece, which followed intermission, brought out the more virtuoso powers of the orchestra. This was no small-scale, coy No. 4. Especially the strings of the Chicago ensemble dazzled with awesome ensemble discipline in the vigorous dramatic shifts of mood in the first and last movements.

Throughout this work, Muti superbly modulated speed and volume, especially with violent grabbing and lunging movements of his left hand.

The woodwinds were especially brilliant, and during individual bows at the end, the bassoon principal got an enormous swell of applause.

Muti later strolled to the back to express well-deserved admiration for the horn players.

The audience gave the visitors from Chicago a standing ovation. After further returns and bows, Muti waved goodbye. No encore, but an unforgettable evening!

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Two days earlier, April 18, British trumpeter Alison Balsom, with the Scottish Ensemble, performed a concert of Baroque music.

Born in 1978 in Hertfordshire, England, Balsom, with some bestselling CDs for the EMI label, has in the past decade established a reputation as one of the most brilliant trumpeters of her generation.

And, to a delighted Foellinger Great Hall audience, she clearly lived up to her advance publicity.

The Scottish Ensemble, in performances of "Concerti Grossi" by Francesco Geminiani and George Frideric Handel, proved itself to be a lively, polished, first rate Baroque ensemble. Most of the string players performed standing, with two violinists who danced quite expressively while playing.

In between these concertos, Balsom, in flowing white gown, showed herself to be a performer on the highest level of accomplishment on her instrument in her arrangements of Tomaso Albinoni's Oboe Concerto, Op. 7, No. 3, and Antonio Vivaldi's Violin Concerto, Op. 6, No. 7.

In the fast sections, Balsom played with breathtaking virtuosity, and I was especially charmed with her mini-trills in the slow movement of the Vivaldi.

Her spectacular high note at the end of the Vivaldi concerto brought down the house.

During the first half of the evening Balsom played on a piccolo trumpet with rotating valves, and in the second half of the evening, she played on the Baroque trumpet. She started the second half with some introductory remarks about the Baroque instrument.

During the second half, Handel's music was joined by selections by Henry Purcell. Some confusion developed about what selection was being performed, and that led to some puzzled reactions from the audience.

The printed program concluded with Balsom's arrangement of Handel's "Suite for Trumpet and Strings in D Major," originally published in 1733 (sometimes referred to as the "Water Piece"). The first two movements were obviously reworkings of Handel's famous "Water Music" of 1717, but there was no mention of this connection in the program notes.

In the final "March No. 2" of the suite, Balsom played a lush, sweeping Handelian melody. That final beguiling musical thrill brought the audience to its feet, and Balsom complied with Jeremiah Clarke's famous "Prince of Denmark's March" (also known as "Trumpet Voluntary"), a work formerly attributed to Purcell.

It was a delightful evening of Baroque music. The line in the lobby waiting to buy autographed copies of Balsom's CDs was quite long.

Clearly, this Brit import is a star!

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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