John Frayne: CUSO starts with some fun, ends with a bang
The Champaign-Urbana Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Stephen Alltop, offered on Saturday a program that began with a fun piece by American Russell Peck and ended with a rip-roaring duel between two tympanists in Carl Nielsen's life-affirming Fourth Symphony, "The Inextinguishable."
"Signs of Life" is the title of Russell Peck's two-movement piece, and after this winter, signs of life are eagerly awaited around here. Peck died in 2009, and Alltop said that his performance was dedicated to his memory.
I have heard this piece elsewhere this past year, and a remark in the notes about Peck's inventing new pizzicato sound for the strings triggered my memory. Peck's work, in two contrasting movements, has modest goals, and Peck had the tact to know when the good fun of his scherzo had lasted long enough.
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) wrote nine symphonies, some of them large, sprawling attempts at major statements. But it is his shorter, more intimate works that now show lasting appeal. "The Lark Ascending," inspired by George Meredith's sonnet of that name, has a lovely violin solo part, describing the lark's flight and song.
Igor Kalnin, concertmaster of the symphony, played this solo with a full rich tone, and with exquisite taste. The trill and other devices imitating the lark's song were delivered with admirable skill. With playing like this, it is Kalnin's career that is ascending along with the lark. The audience responded with strong applause.
The first part of the concert ended with Alltop conducting Richard Wagner's "Prelude and Transfiguration" from his opera "Tristan and Isolde."
Alltop offered this work at his concert last year during the competition for the music director post. He chooses Wagner's original term "Transfiguration" ("Verklrung") rather than his father-in-law's (Franz Liszt's) term "Liebestod" ("Love Death"). Unfortunately, the world knows this magnificent music as "Love Death," and it is not going to change. What complicates matters is that Wagner called the Prelude "Liebestod."
That said, Wagner's music is justly world-famous. The yearning melancholy of the prelude is perfectly balanced by the warmth and ecstasy of the "Liebestod." The orchestra responded to Alltop's sensitive direction with stirring playing, and special praise should go to the oboe soloist.
If ever the world needed a shout of affirmation, it was during the years of mindless slaughter while World War I raged between 1914 and '18. And that is what it got from Nielsen in his fourth symphony, memorably titled "The Inextinguishable." Alltop, in his introduction, did well in having the orchestra members play the "seed idea" of the first movement, which returns with crushing yet exhilarating effect at the climax of the work's finale. This work is in four movements, but played continuously. Alltop's introduction made the movement breaks quite clear.
The work demands orchestral playing of a virtuosic order, and Alltop, in his highly dramatic interpretation, got first-rate work from this orchestra. The two opposing sets of tympani, stage right and left, were played with thrilling effect by William Moersch and Ricardo Flores.
The big moments of this work are stunning, but I have an unusual reaction to Nielsen. In eagerly anticipating the big moments, I tend to get impatient with the filler music between the mighty climaxes. In such cases, Jean Sibelius offered more enjoyable stretches of relaxed music than Nielsen. Perhaps Niesen was impatient as well.
But there was no doubting the final mighty impact of this work. This very fine performance brought many in the audience to their feet.
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.