John Frayne: Sinfonia's 'American Century' a rousing — if loud — success

John Frayne: Sinfonia's 'American Century' a rousing — if loud — success

The Sinfonia da Camera's first concert of the spring semester, "The American Century," was given on Feb. 18 in the Foellinger Great Hall. The concert was dedicated to Edwin Goldwasser, who passed away recently. Professor Goldwasser, distinguished as a research physicist and familiar to a wider academic audience as UIUC's vice chancellor for academic affairs, was, with his wife Lizzie, a strong supporter of the arts in Champaign-Urbana, and especially the Sinfonia da Camera.

Ian Hobson and an expanded Sinfonia began the evening with a very loud, fast and witty performance of Leonard Bernstein's Overture to his problematic opera/musical "Candide."

UIUC School of Music Professor Ollie Watts Davis then joined the Sinfonia for a beguiling interpretation of Samuel Barber's "Knoxville, Summer of 1915," Op. 54. This work is a musical setting of a prose poem by the author James Agee, a work that succeeds in capturing the placid life of an American family in a simpler, more leisurely time, pre-TV, A.C. and dot.com. Professor Davis delivered the Agee with her clear, pure, limpid voice which rose with ease to climactic high notes. Hobson's conducting captured the easy-going tone of Barber's setting, but the orchestral volume sometimes overwhelmed Davis' singing.

The novelty on the program was a work for violin and orchestra entitled "Rhapsody after Gershwin," by David Canfield, a composer active in Bloomington, Ind. Canfield has composed many works, and the George Gershwin composition is one of a series of "after" pieces written in the spirit of famous composers. Aside from his compositional activities, Canfield is widely known to record collectors far and wide, for his record business "Ars Antiqua" and his encyclopedic record catalog, chronicling the LP era.

"Rhapsody after Gershwin," clearly modeled after "Rhapsody in Blue," sports a saxophone quartet, and the music strides along in a lively jazz-inflected way. It has themes in the familiar Gershwin mode, especially a broad lyrical theme that appears early and returns to strong effect at the piece's end. This Gershwin work was written with the violinist Rachel Patrick in mind, and the work calls for much impressive, violin virtuoso display, which Patrick performed with ease and gusto. Some of her vigorous playing was obscured by the high volume level of the orchestral accompaniment. During the strong applause for violinist Patrick and the Sinfonia at the end of the piece, Hobson gestured to composer Canfield to rise from the audience and take a bow.

Canfield's homage to Gershwin had many pleasures, but his themes somewhat paled before real Gershwin melodies, which shone brightly through a well-played performance of Robert Russell Bennett's suite based on Gershwin's opera, and entitled "Porgy and Bess: A Symphonic Picture."

The final American note of the night was struck with a rousing traversal of John Phillip Sousa's most famous march, "Stars and Stripes Forever." Joining the Sinfonia was a contingent of 30 or so members of the UIUC's Marching Illini, who paraded out into the choral balcony. These players added heft to the Sinfonia's brass sections and during Sousa's famous trio section for piccolo, a squad of uniformed piccolists marched out in front of the orchestra and gave a memorably loud rendition of this famously parodied tune. During this iconic patriotic march, the audience stood, and many remained standing during the stormy applause. It was a memorable end to a highly successful concert.

On Feb. 19, the Zor String Quartet, winner of the Young Concert Artists Award, gave a well-rounded and enjoyably played recital on the stage of the Foellinger Great Hall, before an audience on stage and also in the balcony. Their members, violinists Dechopol Kowintaweewat and Seula Lee, violist Pablo Munz Salido and cellist Zizai Ning, opened with Mozart's late and somewhat subdued 1783 Quartet No. 15, K 421. The plaintive opening of this work was performed with a light touch, well-balanced by strong playing later on in more dramatic sections. The quartet sat in an unusual pattern, from left to right, first violin, cello, viola and second violin. This setup seemed to highlight the bass end of the sound range, and clarify the contrapuntal exchange between the violins. Between each selection, violist Salido, without microphone, made comments, which seemed to be understood on the stage but were unintelligible in the balcony.

Anton Webern's early work "Langsamer Satz" ("Slow Movement") (1905) evoked fine, soft lyrical playing, with expressive pizzicato notes. The longest work on the program was Dimitri Shostakovich's Quartet No. 9 (1964). The Zor group captured Shostakovich's ironic tone, with the repeated quadrupedic echoes of Gioachinno Rossini's "William Tell" Overture. They also conveyed with delicacy the melancholic introspection of the two adagio movements. At the quartet's end, the onstage audience stood and applauded. In turn, as encore, the Zor group performed their own arrangement of the chorale, "O Sacred Head Now Wounded," from Johann Sebastian Bach's "St. Matthew Passion." By the way, the name "Zor," meaning "sunrise" in Bulgarian, was chosen by their professor Kevork Mardirossian.

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

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