John Frayne: CUSO delights audience with program, performance
The Feb. 1 concert by the Champaign-Urbana Symphony Orchestra, led by Stephen Alltop, presented a delightful piano concerto by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart with a polished and stylish solo performance by pianist James Giles.
The program concluded with a brilliant and powerful reading of one of Ludwig van Beethoven's masterpieces, his Symphony No. 7, which drew from the audience an explosive standing ovation in the Foellinger Great Hall at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts.
The evening began with a short "Serenata" by the American composer Walter Piston (1894-1976). In three relatively brief movements, Piston offered light, joyous music ideal for a concert opener. I especially liked the slow middle movement in which Piston showed his talent for floating a song-like theme without exaggerated emphasis.
Giles, who teaches at Northwestern University, is evidently a pianist of worldwide performing experience. His Mozart playing had the virtues of directness and clarity, and especially in the middle movement of the Piano Concerto No. 17, he molded Mozart's lyrical phrases with admirable care.
The orchestra's woodwinds were excellent in back-and-forth exchanges with Giles at the piano, most markedly in the finale, with its delightful rondo theme, which Mozart taught to his pet starling. At the concerto's rousing finish, Giles, Alltop and the ensemble received warm sustained applause.
But the great success of the evening was the wonderful performance of Beethoven's Seventh, a work often played, and I must confess, in my opinion somewhat overplayed.
There was nothing routine about Alltop's conducting and the playing of the orchestra. From that puckish transition from solemn introduction into the opening allegro movement to the wild Bacchic rout at the symphony's end, the playing of the strings, woodwinds, and brass were a continuing delight.
The scherzo movement was taken at a breathtaking clip, and then, without pause, Alltop launched the orchestra into the finale with its cliff-hanging alternation of slow and fast tempos, and the final thrilling crescendo.
Amid bravos, and loud applause, Alltop called for solo bows from oboist John Dee, flutist Mary Leathers Chapman and then from the various choirs of the orchestra. The choice of Alltop as the CUSO's new conductor seems increasingly to have been a wise one.
Peter Michalove, composer and well-known figure on the local classical music scene, died recently after a long illness. He had planned a last concert of his music on Feb. 3, but fate ordained otherwise. After his death on Dec. 9, this concert became his memorial concert, organized by his wife Sharon.
Thus, on Feb. 3, before a capacity audience in the main classroom at the Osher Lifelong Learner Institute, six of Michalove's compositions were played by a number of musicians. Memorial tributes were offered by close friend Jean Paley, brother-in-law Richard Grodsky and nephew Mathew Grodsky.
Mr. Michalove taught many courses on classical music at OLLI, and director Christine Cantanzarite described the high level of contribution he made to the teaching program at OLLI.
Mr. Michalove had an unusual arc to his musical career. He earned a doctoral degree in music theory and composition from the University of Illinois, but he was unable to get a job in his field afterward. So he worked in the administration at the UI. After his retirement in 2006, he began to compose again in earnest, and he created a large number of pieces until in 2013 his illness prevented further composition.
This concert began with an engaging "Fanfare for Two Trumpets" played by Aaron Romm and Jeremy McBain. Tatiana Shustova then played "Oasis: Five Bagatelles for Piano"; these pieces were notable for abrupt changes of mood and a wide range of dynamics and rhythmic patterns.
Elaine Fine, a colleague of Mr. Michalove's, had been asked by him to contribute a piece to his projected final program. The result of his request was an engaging work by Fine titled "Three Character Pieces (and One Transcription)" played by Lydia Tang, viola, and Vince Gilbert, clarinet. The transcription was of a movement from Franz Joseph Haydn's Piano Trio No. 12.
The next work of Michalove was "Passageways," which offered oboist John Dee gracious melodic lines for his instrument, and this piece received committed playing from Tang, Aaron Jacobs on the violin and Samuel Aranya on the cello.
The style of Michalove's compositions combined passages of lyrical consonance and dramatic dissonance. In the second part of the program, Chrisin Colvin, soprano, sang with emotional conviction three settings of Heinrich Heine poems, accompanied by Shustova.
Two longer works, "String Quintet" and "Divertimento for String Quartet," offered strong evidence of Mr. Michalove's seriousness of intent and achievement of long range structural unity in his compositions. The last movement of "Divertimento" had an abrupt three-note motif that I took to be an echo of a passage in Dimitri Shostakovich's String Quartet No. 8, which was that composer's reaction to the ruins of the city of Dresden.
Aside from the musicians already mentioned, Anne Heiles, violin, and Margaret Briskin, bass, were among those playing in either one or both of the two last mentioned pieces.
Tang spoke at the concert's end of the encouragement and inspiration she had received from Mr. Michalove, and he had the last word, in a video in which he thanked people at an earlier concert, and this served as a "l'envoi" at this celebration of his life and music.
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.