John Frayne: Fall 2013 season started off hot, ended with great winter concerts

John Frayne: Fall 2013 season started off hot, ended with great winter concerts

Highlights of the past fall concert hall season are easier to write about than last spring; the memories are still fresh.

It started in a different way from the past few years. Usually, the Allerton Barn Festival at Monticello, around Labor Day, was the first notable concentration of classical music performances. But after some hot early September nights the year before, the festival organizers decided to move it back about three weeks to Sept. 19-21. Alas, the weather on some of these nights was quite warm anyway.

For me, the most notable event was the Sept. 19 performance of Gunther Schuller's "Horn Quintet," in the presence of this famous composer, who had given a lecture on campus a few days earlier. Hornist Bernhard Scully matched the virtuosic demands of this piece, with the excellent collaboration of the Jupiter String Quartet.

On Sept. 21, George Gershwin's musical "Of Thee I Sing," received a lively revival, with Ricardo Herrera in the leading role.

At Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, the classical season started Sept. 12 with an exciting performance of Felix Mendelssohn's "Octet for Strings," jointly played by the Jupiter and Jasper string quartets. The two Freivogel sisters of the Jupiter group have a brother and sister-in-law in the Jaspers.

Steven Alltop began his tenure as music director of the Champaign-Urbana Symphony Orchestra on Oct. 5 with sparkling readings of Suites Nos. 1 and 2 from Maurice Ravel's ballet "Daphnis and Chloe," which showed the orchestra in top form. Violinist Elissa Lee Kaljonen was heard in sensitive performances of works by Ernest Chausson and Ravel.

The Chicago Symphony came to town Oct. 12 with Riccardo Muti conducting a thrilling performance of Sergei Prokofiev's music from his "Romeo and Juliet" ballet. Paul Hindemith's "Violin Concerto," expertly played by concertmaster Robert Chen, was a highly interesting novelty.

At a concert by the UI Symphony on Oct. 20, conducted by Donald Schleicher and graduate students, violin soloist Sung Hee Shin gave an exciting and technically accomplished performance of Peter Tchaikovsky's "Violin Concerto." The concert ended with Schleicher leading this talented group of students in a stirring performance of Richard Strauss' tone poem, "Don Juan."

In a lively program Oct. 23, the Hungarian State Folk ensemble demonstrated the wealth of regional folk dances in Hungary, but one would have liked to know what they were singing about.

Apollo's Fire on Oct. 30 offered a highly enjoyable reading of Johann Sebastian Bach's Brandenburg Concerto Nos. 2-6. The authentic instrument sounds were an asset, but I still prefer the modern trumpet in Bach's music.

On Nov. 2, the Sinfonia da Camera, giving its first concert later than usual, played a relaxing program of a serenade by Johannes Brahms, and a suite of incidental music for Moliere's "Bourgeois Gentilhomme" by Strauss.

Cellist Jay Campbell and pianist Conor Hanick, on Nov. 3, displayed much youthful energy in a program of pieces by Ludwig van Beethoven and Igor Stravinsky — and some daring contemporary pieces by Mattias Pintcher and John Zorn.

Perhaps the biggest success of the season was the Nov. 7 appearance of Sir James Galway and his wife Lady Jeanne Galway with the Irish Chamber Orchestra. Sir James's genial patter and a "something for everyone" repertoire enchanted the capacity Foellinger audience.

Eduardo Diazmunoz's farewell University of Illinois performance conducting Guiseppe Verdi's last operatic masterpiece, "Falstaff," showed excellent ensemble singing from the student cast and fine playing from the student orchestra. This event, which ran Nov. 14-17, was part of the celebration of the 200th anniversary of Verdi's birth in 1813.

The San Francisco Symphony program Nov. 15 showed star conductor Michael Tilson Thomas at his forte: inventive and challenging programming. Fine performances of music by Beethoven and Jeremy Denk's sensitive reading of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 25 did not quite balance with the quirky piece by Steven Mackey, "Eating Greens" and Aaron Copland's seldom-performed "Symphonic Ode."

Another major gesture to the Verdi Centennial was on Nov. 21, with a powerful performance of his "Manzoni Requiem" by the UI Chorale, the UI Oratorio Society and the UI Women's and Men's Glee Clubs. The Sinfonia, admirable soloists and 248 choristers were vigorously led by Ian Hobson.

The Takacs Quartet on Dec. 6 impressed me with highly exciting reading of quartets by Beethoven, Bela Bartok and Bedrich Smetana.

At the second performance of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's ballet "The Nutcracker," on Dec. 6, the Champaign Urbana Ballet and the Sinfonia wove their usual spell of holiday enchantment.

The fall season rounded off with two interlocking concerts. The enjoyable C-U Symphony holiday concert of Dec. 12 had the novelty of a serious work on the program, Bach's "Magnificat," with the Baroque Artists of Champaign-Urbana chorus joining in, and then, at the next Sunday's BACH Baroque Christmas Concert, "Magnificat" was again performed, with the same chorus but different soloists and instrumentalists. This masterpiece can bear repetition, and Christmas is the season of overwhelming repetition, of carols and songs.

I hear a frequent comment that there seem to be fewer classical music programs at Krannert than before, but a comparison of last year's and this year's schedule shows that the number of classical music concerts is about the same.

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 (1):Music

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