John Frayne: Visiting quartet delights; 'Nutcracker' always enjoyable
The award-winning Takacs Quartet came Dec. 5 to Foellinger Great Hall at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts and offered an exciting program of string quartets by Ludwig van Beethoven, Bela Bartok and Bedrich Smetana. This quartet was started in 1975 in Budapest, Hungary, by four students, and two of the original players are still in the quartet: Karoly Schranz, violin, and Andras Fejar, cello. First violin Edward Dusinberre joined the quartet in 1993, and violist Geraldine Walter was added in 2005.
In the Takacs Quartet's dramatic, no-holds-barred playing of Ludwig van Beethoven's String Quartet No. 4 in C minor, Op. 18, No. 4, this work did not seem an early work, but rather a nature masterpiece by the 28-year-old composer, invoking comparisons with his middle and late period quartets.
In the first and last movements, the emotional intensity of the Takacs playing mounted to the level of fury at moments. The odd non-slow second movement of this work added to the feeling of originality in this piece, as played by the Takacs.
The next piece, Bela Bartok's 1917 Quartet No. 2, Op. 17, is one of the six quartets by Bartok that are the "gold standard" for quartets in the 20th century.
It is odd that the position of movements is so dominant in musical works. Bartok's work opens with a reflective, almost melancholy movement, followed by a hectic, almost wild middle movement, and the work ends with a sad, almost despairing slow movement. If Bartok had reversed the second and third movements, our feelings about the emotional meaning of this work would be much different; instead of final sorrow, we would have final reaffirmation of life. In the intensity of their playing, it was clear that Bartok's music is close to the heart of the Takacs.
This Bartok quartet ends with somber pizzicato notes played by the cello. By happenstance or design, pizzicato cello notes also end the last quartet of the evening, Bedrich Smetana's Quartet No. 1 in E minor, "From My Life."
This autobiographical work depicts the composer's earlier joys, his mature accomplishments and his last tragic years, when he was deaf and tortured by tinnitus in the form of continuously hearing a high E note.
A distinct feature of this work is the importance of the viola part. Walter played with beautiful intensity the pleading melody of the first movement as well as standout passages for the viola in the second movement Polka. And Fejer, as in the Bartok quartet, had the last word with sad pizzicato notes in the Smetana piece. Sad end or not, the reaction of the Foellinger audience was highly enthusiastic at concert's end.
There are few events of the Krannert season that I look forward to with such delight as the Champaign Urbana Ballet's production of "The Nutcracker," with the masterpiece score by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, and in this production, choreography by Deanna Doty and Harvey Hysell.
Many of the elements of this production have become traditions, but I keenly enjoy seeing, yet once more, the Chinese Dragon and Mother Ginger and her multitudinous brood, moments which as usual evoked frenzied applause. The presence of so many children in the audience was a reminder that some of them are encountering this marvelous work for the first time.
To my imperfect memory, there seemed to be fresh wrinkles in this year's production, but there also continue strong character portrayals and excellent dancing by soloists and corps de ballet alike.
I attended the Dec. 6 performance in the Tryon Festival Theatre, so my comments apply to one set of dancers in principal roles. Brett Fedderson continues to be a model of menace as Herr Drosselmeyer, the bringer of magical nutcrackers. Lauren Frost, from Unity High School, was lively and charming as the heroine Clara. Nick Hittle, from Champaign Central, danced a strong and agile Nutcracker. Erisa Nakamura, from Centennial, gained strong applause for her elegant movements as the Sugar Plum Fairy. Ben Chapman danced a stalwart Cavalier. Despite revolutions in gender roles, in ballet, males still do the lifting.
Maeva O'Brien, from Urbana High, danced a graceful and lovely Rose Queen. Lack of space prevents me from singling out the outstanding dancers in the national-themed dances of the second act. That said, guest Costas Cangellaris was hilarious as Mother Ginger, and her Polichinelles (marionettes) seem to shrink in size year by year.
The Sinfonia da Camera played splendidly, conducted with the precision as befits ballet music, by Ian Hobson. Trumpeter Ron Romm had his grand moment in the Russian Dance. Flutist Rebecca Johnson and piccolo player Mary Leathers Chapman played their frequent solos with distinction. In the famous Waltz of the Flowers, the horns, with Brian Kilp as principal and the harpist, Chen-Yu Huang, played beautifully.
During the tumultuously applauded curtain call, Hobson and Doty joined the multitude of dancing flowers, snowflakes, mice, rats and brave soldiers to bask in the success of this wonderful production.
Praise also goes to the technical staff that fills the Tryon stage with a magical glow. And lastly, let's give a shout-out for the loyal van drivers who transport these dancing multitudes to rehearsals and performances. (High calorie alert! A table in the lobby groaned beneath the weight of hundreds of irresistible cupcakes, almost all of which were consumed by final curtain.)
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.