John Frayne: Looking back, it was a harmonious concert season

John Frayne: Looking back, it was a harmonious concert season

This past fall season at Krannert Center was front-loaded, with stellar attractions in September and October, then a slacking off somewhat in November, before the traditional holiday favorites. On Sept. 24, before the usual musical wheels were turning, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra came to town, and it was a memorable occasion, perhaps for nonmusical reasons. By 7:30 start time, a capacity audience was still entering the Foellinger Great Hall, thanks in part to a new system for electronically checking each ticket. Maestro Riccardo Muti is apparently a stickler for punctuality, and he came on stage, and seeing that folks were still entering the hall, he sat down on the podium, a gesture greeted with laughter. At a later point in the concert, Maestro Muti delivered a brief homily on the virtues of arriving on time. Perhaps Muti, an Italian, is reacting to his countrymen's notorious resistance to the tyranny of the clock. There is a saying that in Italy nothing respectable starts on time. Well, the CSO concert was more than respectable. Performances of symphonies by Anton Bruckner are rare here, so it was a special treat to hear such a stunning interpretation of Bruckner's monumental Seventh Symphony as magnificently played by the CSO. It is a paradox that as our national attention span grows shorter, concerts feature longer and longer pieces.

I am aware that the scheduling of star performers is a difficult business. You must get them when they have an opening, not when you want to present them. But it was startling to have superstar Lang Lang playing the piano in the FGH on Sept. 29. Lang Lang is arguably the most famous pianist in the world. His keyboard gymnastics and technical brilliance have made him a treasured icon for adoring audiences at the same time as he gives some critics the fits. His performance here was an amalgam of intense moments of quiet playing and a slam bang rip through Manuel de Falla's "Ritual fire Dance" that left the audience in raptures and the music ripped to shreds. A gripping performance of Franz Liszt's Sonata for Piano was for me the best blend of spectacular virtuosity and interpretive insight.

The Bruckner/Mahler surge in popularity that began following World War II seems not to have made big strides here. Touring orchestras seldom feature such works. So, after hearing Bruckner with the CSO, it was a real treat to hear Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 2 "Resurrection" with the Champaign-Urbana Symphony, strongly led by Stephen Alltop on Oct. 8. The orchestra played at a very high level, and the UI Oratorio Society was excellently prepared by Andrew Megill, and all joined for one of the most thrilling climaxes I have heard in the FGH. Now, let us hear Mahler's Eighth Symphony, the so-called "Symphony of a Thousand."

On Oct. 20, Nathan and Julie Gunn, with the Jupiter Quartet, offered an ambitious and challenging recital that had many high points, and a few misfires. The next night, Ian Hobson played and conducted a very fine performance of Ludwig van Beethoven's "Fourth Piano Concerto." At their concert on Oct. 28, the UI Symphony, ably led by Donald Schleicher, gave a most exciting performance of Hector Berlioz's trailblazing "Symphonie Fantastique." Also on that program, pianist Yujin Na gave an impressive reading of the solo part in Franz Liszt's Piano concerto No. 1 in E-Flat.

In the second week of November, Lyric Theatre Illinois staged a brave attempt to make Claudio Monteverdi's Baroque masterpiece, "The Coronation of Poppea," relevant to a modern audience. The music of this opera could at times be splendid, but at a length of three hours one's attention started to flag.

On Nov. 29, Louis Bergonzi led the UI Philharmonia in a highly enjoyable holiday-themed concert that included Arcangelo Corelli's "Christmas Concerto," and Peter Tchaikovsky's Suite from the ballet "The Nutcracker."

At the Dec. 1 Sinfonia da Camera concert, percussionists William Moersch and Ricardo Flores were especially impressive in the rarely heard Concerto for Timpani, Percussion and Strings by Andrzej Panufnik, and the concert ended with a lovely reading by the Sinfonia strings of Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings in C. Among the holiday concert events, I found most charming the performance on Dec. 4 of "The Nutcracker," and a vital reading of the Poulenc "Gloria," conducted by Andrew Magill with the UI Oratorio Society, the Chamber Singers and soprano Josefien Stoppelenburg at the CU Symphony's concert on Dec. 8.

John Frayne hosts "Classics of the Phonograph" on Saturdays at WILL-FM and, in retirement, teaches at the UI. Reach him at

Topics (1):Music