John Frayne: Auspicious beginning for Alltop in CUSO season opener
The Champaign-Urbana Symphony Orchestra season opened with a bang on Oct. 5. Enthusiasm and expectation were in the air as Stephen Alltop began his tenure as the fourth music director of this orchestra in the 54th year of its history.
Sound levels also were high in the Foellinger Great Hall at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts as Alltop and the orchestra demonstrated the full range of the concert's title, "A World of Color."
Alltop gave genial and informative introductions to some of the pieces on the program. His comments on the opening work, "Rainbow Body" by Christopher Theofanidis, explained its origins in a chant by Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th-century German nun and composer (and a Catholic saint).
This work lived up to Alltop's praises as a cornucopia of orchestral colors.
It also impressed me by the direct emotive force of the Bingen melody as played by the orchestra strings. Forces of darkness and light clash as this work moved toward an explosion of triumphant sound.
After the piece, cellist Barbara Hedlund was called upon for a solo bow for her highly expressive playing of solo passages.
The two piece pieces chosen by guest soloist Elissa Lee Koljonen — Ernest Chausson's 1898 "Poem for Violin and Orchestra" and Maurice Ravel's 1924 "Tzigane" ("Gypsy") — could not have offered a stronger contrast. The Chausson work is dark and moody, full of heart on the sleeve emotion. And the Ravel piece is a virtuoso's delight or nightmare, an epitome of gypsy violin postures and tricks.
Koljonen's violin tone alternated between strength and tenderness in the shifting moods of the Chausson piece, which bore many stylistic traces of his teacher, Cesar Franck. It took assured power to maintain momentum through the more than a quarter of an hour of the work, and Koljonen brought this piece to a touching conclusion, as assisted by Alltop and the orchestra.
"Tzigane' is much lighter in texture. This spin-off of a Franz Liszt "Hungarian Rhapsody" begins with a somber, slow passage in which the solo violin weeps and wails in the most expressive gypsy manner, and then, when the orchestra enters, led by the harp, Koljonen was able in the czardas passages to show virtuoso skills of a very high order.
Her brilliant playing at the work's climax brought a burst of applause, and many in the balcony, where I was, stood in appreciation.
The other contemporary work on the program was Michael Daugherty's "Red Cape Tango" (1993) from his Metropolis Symphony, which illustrates stages in the career of the cartoon character Superman.
In this final movement of the symphony, the composer uses the familiar medieval funeral chant "Dies Irae" ("Day of Wrath") in an off-the-wall tango rhythm.
Daugherty uses mighty instrumental forces to carry off the joke, including duelling cymbals, but the work blares on, at peak volume, just too long. Unlike the "Man of Steel," I have all-too-human ears.
The concert ended with the Suites Nos. 1 and 2 from Ravel's famous 1912 ballet "Daphnis and Chloe." Here the sym- phony, led with admirable finesse by Alltop, projected beautifully the aural splendors of this score.
The first suite, less well known of the pair, had fine-spun coloristic effects that were novel to me. The second suite, with its splendid sunrise section and orgiastic conclusion, is one of the last century's most famous and successful orchestral "tours de force."
Alltop and the orchestra scored a triumph in these suites, and among the many solo bows at the work's conclusion, the brilliant playing of flutist Mary Leathers Chapman was intensely applauded. It was a most auspicious beginning for Alltop, and the CUSO never sounded better.
At one point in the evening, Alltop thanked Carl and Nadja Altstetter for their generous gift of $100,000 to the orchestra's endowment fund. The Altstetters were called upon to stand and acknowledge the warm applause of us all.
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.