John Frayne: Prairie Ensemble shows brassy side in finale
The Prairie Ensemble gave its last concert of the season May 4 at McKinley Presbyterian Church in Champaign. The program was titled "Conductor's Choice," and conductor Kevin Kelly in the course of the evening explained why the pieces chosen had a special appeal for him.
The concert opened with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Symphony No. 25 in G Minor. As Kelly pointed out, the opening of this work was used with great dramatic impact in the famous film "Amadeus," which dealt with the presumed enmity of Antonio Salieri toward Mozart.
This symphony has been described as Mozart's first "great" work in that form, and it certainly starts out with an unusually impassioned outburst for a 17-year-old composer. The Prairie Ensemble, led forcefully by Kelly, pushed the music for maximum impact, emphasizing the more rough-and-tumble aspects of the score. The four horns of the ensemble stood out in the important role in the musical tapestry. And indeed, the horn as an instrument was of varying importance in all three of the compositions offered. The Horn Concerto No. 1 in E-flat by the 19-year-old Richard Strauss was second on the program.
Kelly had interviewed horn soloist Bernhard Scully, a horn professor at the University of Illinois, before the program began. Previously in his career, Scully played with the Canadian Brass and was formerly first horn of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.
In their conversation, Kelly, himself trained as a horn player, asked Scully why the horn is reputed as a difficult, error-prone instrument. Scully in turn seemed to want to minimize the instrument's difficulties.
In my opinion, when you play the instrument at the virtuoso level of Scully, the problems of the horn tend to evaporate. Horn players are such easy targets for critics! My own attitude is to ignore a few broken notes in the course of an entire concert.
Well, the perils of horn playing were forgotten as Scully sailed into the march-like grand opening of the Strauss concerto. He played with lovely tone — and fine contrasts of timbre and tempo. This music showed Strauss' style at an early stage of his development, and the shadows of Felix Mendelssohn and Richard Wagner (particularly "Lohengrin") are in the background of this buoyant work.
The finale movement ended with a cadenza, excitingly played by Scully, and a final flourish at the concerto's close brought an outcry of praise from the audience with a standing ovation.
In the halftime segment, a student wind quintet from the East Central Illinois Youth Orchestra, which Kelly conducts, played "Three Pieces" by Ludwig Maurer and the "Galliard Battaglia" by Samuel Scheidt.
The student wind players were James Vaughen, trumpet, Benjamin Lash, trombone, Rebecca Salo, horn, and Isaac Kasten, tuba. Trumpeter Aaron Romm, their teacher, also joined in the music making. The students played the mostly lively pieces with clarity, precision and enthusiasm.
The last work on the program was the Fifth Symphony by Ralph Vaughan Williams. This elegiac work contrasts pensive, consoling moods with darker, more turbid episodes.
Some of the music echoes passages from Vaughan Williams' opera "Pilgrim's Progress." This Symphony premiered in June 1943, in the middle of World War II, and it brought to many listeners, in Britain and elsewhere, a glimmer of hope and peace in the midst of conflict.
The players of the Prairie Ensemble, especially the horns, which opened and closed the symphony, gave a highly enjoyable reading of this work. Kelly's sensitive conducting mirrored his special fondness for this score.
In the strong applause at the work's end, solo bows were called for by Kelly for players of the oboe, flute, clarinet and, of course, the horns.
John Frayne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.