John Frayne: C-U Symphony, conductor and guest cellist shine
The Champaign-Urbana Symphony, led by Stephen Alltop, began brilliantly in its Russian Festival concert at the Foellinger Great Hall last Friday, and it ended brilliantly two hours later. And, thanks to guest cellist Wendy Warner, there were many brilliant moments along the way.
Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov's "Russian Easter Overture" got the concert off to a rousing start. This composer was famous for his marvelous skills in orchestration. His genius in bringing out the unique tone colors of instruments gave the players of the symphony many opportunities to display their skills, and solos from the flutes, trombones, horns, tuba, cello and trumpet early on showed that the players were in top form. Alltop then led the orchestra in a splendid series of kinetic passages leading up to a resounding climax.
Alexander Glazunov's "Chant du Menestrel" was a relaxed, lyrical interlude after the alarms and excursions of the opening overture. Cellist Warner played the solo part with a rich full tone, and with a strong projection of Glazunov's polished melodies.
However, this was but prologue to Peter Tchaikovsky's "Variations on a Rococo Theme." Opposites are said to attract, and Tchaikovsky, with all his hyper-romantic tumults, adored the music of Mozart.
Tchaikovsky's own Rococo theme evokes the spirit of Mozart, and in the opening variations cellist Warner played with lovely expressiveness the composer's alluring facets of his theme. Warner can draw a magnificent richness of sound from her cello, and at some moments in the score, she played louder and more richly than any cellist I have heard in the Foellinger Great Hall.
Then the fireworks began, and Warner brilliantly executed the lightning fast runs up the scales to the top harmonic tones of her instrument. The daring bravura of her playing gave evidence of her training with the great Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich.
The whirlwind finale of the Tchaikovsky Variations earned Warner, and the orchestra, led by Alltop, very strong applause. I would much like to hear Warner in the Antonin Dvorak Cello Concerto.
Tchaikovsky may have achieved beautiful passages in his first three symphonies, but it in was the "Fourth Symphony," completed in 1878, that the composer achieved true greatness in this form. Friday night, Stephen Alltop and the symphony played a most stirring and arousing interpretation of this masterwork.
The opening fanfare statement of the "Fate Theme" was delivered with stentorian glory by the brass choirs. Here let me single out trombonists Elliott Chasanov, G. David Peters and Brett Evans for their exceptional playing here and throughout the evening.
Amid the emotional storms of the first movement, the most beautiful passages of blissful serenity were most appealingly rendered by woodwinds and strings. In the gossamer pizzicato Scherzo, the string sections acquitted themselves admirably, and they were most effectively joined later by the woodwind and brass choirs in this perfectly formed movement.
And what to say of the finale? The word "overwhelming" comes to mind. Here Alltop showed his mettle as a superb orchestral leader. The blazing return of the "Fate Theme" by the horns was adroitly paced by Alltop, and at the end of this breathtaking movement, Alltop drove the orchestra at dizzying speed to a thrilling finish.
Cheers erupted in the audience. As Alltop called for bows from each section of the orchestra, we, in the balcony, stood first, later joined by those below in the orchestra. My reaction: I think this orchestra should go on tour!
In an opening speech, orchestra president Kip Pope dedicated this performance to Sue Crawford, who is retiring from the orchestra board this year. For eight years, beginning in 1995, Crawford was general manager during the period when the Champaign-Urbana Symphony was saved from the dangers of financial collapse.
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.