John Frayne: Wind symphony a 'premiere' group

It is unusual for a performing organization to offer performances of two compositions by well-known composers that are world premieres at two concerts in a row. But that is just what the University of Illinois Wind Symphony, led by Robert W. Rumbelow, has achieved.

On April 7, this group offered the world premiere of Aaron Jay Kernis' Trumpet Concerto, entitled "a Voice, a Messenger." On April 30, the "Concerto for Marimba and Wind Sinfonietta" by Christopher Theofanidis was premiered, with UI Professor William Moersch as soloist.

Theofanidis' works have been widely performed to critical acclaim, and Moersch is an internationally renowned marimba soloist and also known locally as tympanist at the concerts of the Sinfonia da Camera.

This marimba concerto has an unusual lineup of movements. A central three-movement concerto group is prefaced by a "Prologue" and followed by an "Aria." So the final impression of this work is halfway between a concerto and a suite.

But there was no doubt of this work's function as a display piece for such a virtuoso of the marimba as Moersch. With the marimba offering long lines of melody by commanding, if somewhat disjointed, strokes, the instrument went from tremolo whispers to dazzling cascades of tones with Moersch's brilliant playing.

Theofanidis not only offered wide scope for technical display, but also appealing melodies which could be followed through more complex development.

Moersch was ably backed up by the instrumentalists of the wind symphony, vigorously conducted by Rumbelow. The score allowed Moersch to interact with two marimba players of the symphony. Theofanidis was present and joined Moersch and Rumbelow during the strong applause at the work's end.

The concert began with Richard Danielpour's "Nox Tenebroso" ("Dark Night") from his ballet, "Anima Mundi" ("Soul of the World"). This most un-nocturnal piece called for loud and animated playing, and after many exciting minutes, it did not seem to end but rather collapse.

I find it striking that the second half of the concert had pieces by Peter Mennin and Vincent Persichetti, American composers who were well known at the middle of the 20th century but whose symphonies one seldom hears now on orchestral programs. Persichetti's "Symphony for Band" (1956) is an attractive work, and it is easy to see why wind bands still play it. Michael Chester, a graduate student in conducting, led a highly effective reading, with first rate playing.

Rumbelow then came out and announced an encore dedicated to graduating members of the UI Wind Symphony. The choice went to Dimitri Shostakovich's "Festive Overture." This loud and happy piece might be called Shostakovich's "1812," and it certainly left a warm if slightly deafening feeling at concert's and semester's end.

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I attended the April 28 matinee performance of "The Threepenny Opera" with text by Berthold Brecht and music by Kurt Weill. Many people who attended one of the four performances complained to me that they could not understand either the spoken dialogue or the sung texts.

The songs were amplified, but the dialogue was not. From previous acquaintance with this work, I could remember some of the Mark Blitzstein translations of the song lyrics, but I also found the spoken word difficult to understand.

For whatever the reason, comic scenes early on evoked little laughter from the audience. And some scenes, such as the wedding of Macheath and Polly Peachum, seemed to ramble on without much dramatic focus.

I am reluctant to blame student actors and singers for performing as they have been directed. The central role of Macheath needed much more dash and swagger than the rather low-key playing by Lee Steiner. (I heard the Sunday cast. Different performers sang some of the principal roles in other performances.) Mariel Saavedra as Mrs. Peachum and Alexander Indelicato as Mr. Peachum certainly gave maximum energy to their performances, but it was not enough to lift the generally sluggish tone of the production.

Samantha Resser was a sweet and sympathetic Polly Peachum, and she sang the hit number, "Jenny the Pirate," forcefully at her wedding scene. However, I prefer the option to give the song to the character Jenny Diver, later on in the plot. The prostitute Jenny seems the better vehicle for such murderous rage than the virginal Polly.

Ricardo Sepulveda tried hard to give dramatic coherence to the role of police chief Tiger Brown. That role deserved a more distinctive costume than a trench coat. Those audience members who left after the first half of the performance missed some effective singing in part two. Ellen Denham as Jenny Diver shone with "Solomon's Song" and Elena Negruta as Lucy Brown sang appealingly "Barbara's Song." Negruta's Lucy and Resser's Polly drew energetic singing from each other in the "Jealousy Duet," one of the dramatic high points of the second half.

I found the tempos chosen by conductor Cara Chowning to be on the slow side, and the instrumental ensemble seemed too far to the rear of the stage to deliver maximum impact.

This production generally lacked dramatic focus. The actors spoke of "pounds" and "shillings" and the "Queen's coronation," all evoking Brecht/Weill's early Victorian (1838) setting. But the staging of director Tom Mitchell tried also to join to the ideological mix such recent acts of social protest as the "Occupy Wall Street" movement.

New York cops, audio montages of media babble, sidewalk graffiti, and "Occupy" tents diluted the impact of Weill's brilliant score and distracted from whatever emotional rapport one could develop toward Brecht's satiric characters.

When you try "everything," you often get ... well, you choose the appropriate word.

One would wish for a better fate for all the dedicated work by singers, instrumentalists and technicians that was put into this production.

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.

Topics (2):Music, Theater

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