John Frayne: Heiles' enthusiasm, Gershwin's humor wrap up barn festival
For the last two concerts of the seventh Allerton Barn Music Festival, the mini heat wave had morphed into beautiful, cool fall weather, and the temperature in the barn was perfect.
On Sept. 21, University of Illinois piano Professor William Heiles gave a recital of works by Johann Sebastian Bach and Robert Schumann. The atmosphere at this concert was quite relaxed, as Heiles prefaced each work with explanatory remarks. Before the English Suite No. 1 in A Major, BWV 806, Heiles said that the term "English" in the title was meaningless. This suite, and other Bach suites were French in the type of dances included, and in the keyboard style as well. Heiles then played this work with balance and clarity, carefully distinguishing the speed and tempo changes in each dance form.
On Schumann's "Kinderszenen," Heiles explained that the title should be translated as "Scenes of Children," thus emphasizing the feelings of adults watching children, rather than the usual "Scenes of Childhood," which suggests adults remembering their own childhoods. Heiles thought that the most famous section "Trumerei" ("Reverie") was usually sentimentalized through very slow playing. He then played the 13 pieces, bringing out in high relief the shifting moods, on a scale from joy to fear, and playing "Trumerei" at what seemed to me a quite appropriate tempo.
Heiles lastly chose to play Schumann's "Carnaval," perhaps one of the composer's most famous longer compositions, along with "Kinderszenen." In Heiles' view, this suite depicts a large party, with characters in fantastic costumes, and with unexpected encounters of masked revelers. This work is full of fun moments, and Heiles played them with skillful enthusiasm.
His loving and expressive playing evoked strong applause, and two bouquets of flowers from opposite sides of the barn were brought to him. He carefully placed the flowers on the stage, and announced the encore: No. 16 of Schumann's "Dances of the David's Group," which he played with modest charm.
The last concert of the festival presented a concert version of George Gershwin's 1931 musical "Of Thee I Sing." I attended the 2 p.m. showing on Sept. 22.
This mid-Depression spoof of American politics matched Gershwin's music and his brother Ira's lyrics with the witty and fantastical script by George S. Kaufmann and Morris Ryskind. The plot involved some humorous jabs at the inanities of Washington politics, and although the work is 82 years old, some of the jokes evoke current D.C. antics.
A cast of lusty-voiced singers, ably assisted by a small band gave a highly enjoyable reading of this sometimes bubbling score. Within the confined stage of the barn, J.W. Morrisette adroitly moved his singing actors about to gain maximum dramatic impact. Many of the music numbers involve soloists singing with the chorus, and Cara Chowning had well prepared the cast to maintain a high level of musical excitement.
Tom Mitchell was the dramaturg, or literary advisor, for this production.
Ricardo Herrera was outstanding in the leading role of John P. Wintergreen. His ringing baritone projected Gershwin's melodic lines with clarity and suave assurance. His delivery of the comic punch lines was sharp and on target. Dallas Street, as the maladroit vice president Throttlebottom, played perfectly the eternal fall guy.
Yvonne Redman was delightful as the beauty queen turned into avenging virago. Anne-Marie Morrisette balanced well comic moments with perhaps the work's only noncynical emotions as Mary Turner, secretary turned first lady.
Other fine portrayals included Jerry Siena's explosive stint as the French Ambassador and Dawn Harris' droll delivery of punchlines as the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Count. Ten additional members of the cast did yeoman's work in moving in and out of various roles.
I felt a drop in intensity in the second act. The conflict plot with France was a bit too silly. The musical is said to have inspired the Marx Brothers to make the movie "Animal Crackers."
The playing of the band was loud and high-spirited, under the energetic direction of Aaron Kaplan. Watching the show in the barn had its charms, but since the seats are all on the same level, the sight lines are bad, especially behind pillars.
This work evokes memories in me. I think I saw a Broadway revival of it in 1952; I then thought it overhyped and silly. My, how my tastes have improved!
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 email@example.com.