John Frayne: Prairie Ensemble powerful in new venue
Last Friday, the Prairie Ensemble, led by Kevin Kelly, returned to the fray with its first concert since last spring. The ensemble played in a venue new to them, the Orpheum Children's Science Museum in downtown Champaign. The hall there, I am told, is a one third scale replica of the opera house at Versailles, outside Paris, and I found the acoustics to be excellent.
The program included only works for a string ensemble, and it began with Swedish composer Dag Wiren's 1937 "Serenade for Strings in G." I had forgotten how delightful this work is, and Kelly and the ensemble gave a reading that brought into high relief the delights of this work. Then came Gerald Finzi's 1928 "Romance," a work expressing sweet melancholic emotion.
The soloist at this concert was oboist John Dee, a University of Illinois School of Music faculty member who gave an excellent performance in Ralph Vaughan Williams 1944 "Concerto for Oboe and Strings." Dee played with a lovely tone and molded the lyrical phrases of this charming work with tasteful skill. At the concerto's end, the audience gave Dee and the ensemble a standing ovation. In the pre-concert talk, Dee expressed the joys and woes of oboists in their search for the perfect reed.
At intermission time, the Honors Student Quartet of the East Central Illinois Youth Orchestra played the first movement of Wolfgang Mozart's "String Quartet in D Minor," K. 421, and the third movement of Dimitri Shostakovitch's 1946 "String Quartet No. 3."
The Mozart movement was played with grace and poise; the Shostakovich movement was played with appropriate savage energy. The players were Daniel Meling and Noah Larson, violins, Isaac Henry, viola, and Jordan Gunn, cello.
The major work on the program was Gustav Mahler's arrangement for string orchestra of Franz Schubert's "String Quartet No. 14, Death and the Maiden." Mahler's version lends strength to the climaxes of this profound work, but some of the intimate blending of voices is lost in the process. Kelly and the ensemble gave a powerful reading of this version, but there were intonation problems, particularly in the second movement variations on "Death and the Maiden."
The Haifa Symphony Orchestra of Israel brought to Krannert Center for the Performing Arts' Foellinger Great Hall on Saturday night two of the most popular and often played works in the symphonic repertory. The first of these was Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's "Piano Concerto No. 1."
With Roman Rabinovich at the keyboard, this was no standard off-the-rack reading. Rabinovich is a piano virtuoso with a strong musical profile. He had the technique to play the famously thundering scales of this concerto, but he also looked into the more hidden springs of beauty in this somewhat rambling work. Rabinovich's soft lyrical playing was almost hypnotic, and at times the forward impulse of the music almost came to a halt.
The Haifa Symphony sounds like a very good regional orchestra. They played with strong enthusiasm, but there were wrong notes, and some ragged entries.
Conductor Boguslaw Dawidow led them in the Tchaikovsky work in a dramatic collaboration with Rabinovich at the piano. Altogether, pianist, conductor, and orchestra drove the break-next finale to a thrilling conclusion, which evoked strong applause, which led Rabinovich back to the piano.
For his first encore, he gave a dazzling reading of his piano arrangement of part of Maurice Ravel's famous ballet, "Daphnis and Chloe." This version is available on Rabinovich's CD, entitled "Ballet Russe," on the Orchid Classics label. You can also hear some of this Ravel ballet transcription on YouTube.
The Ravel piece brought a torrent of applause from the audience. His second encore, a "Sarabande" from J.S. Bach's "English Suite in F Major," was played in an introspective, romantic manner.
Familiar as it is, it is always a joy to hear Antonin Dvorak's "Symphony No. 9, From the New World." The brass, woodwinds, and strings of the Haifa Symphony did themselves proud in a moving and exciting reading of this masterpiece, and its success was in large measure due to Dawidow's vigorous conducting.
The English horn solo in the second movement was hauntingly played by Arielle Alvarez-Pereyre, and the work of the first desk flute, oboe, clarinet and the solo horn was outstanding.
As encore, viola soloist Avshalom Sarid gave a heartfelt rendition of John Williams' theme from the film "Schindler's List." Then Dawidow turned up the excitement level with a stirring run-through of John Philip Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever," in which Dawidow conducted our hand clapping.
In his 2011 appearance here, with the Opole Symphony Orchestra of Poland, Dawidow also ended with the Sousa march. And we clapped along then, too.
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.