John Frayne: Sinfonia opens season with a youthful bang

John Frayne: Sinfonia opens season with a youthful bang

The Sinfonia da Camera, conducted by Ian Hobson, gave its season opening concert on Saturday, Sept. 30, and the accent was strongly on youth. Three young performers were winners from the Sinfonia's 2017 Student Concerto Competition, with each one performing movements from concertos for their instruments.

After a fresh and lively performance of Edvard Grieg's familiar Suite No. 1 of his incidental music for Henrik Ibsen's play "Peer Gynt," Stella Faux, violin, the winner of the Youth division, performed the solo in Dimitri Kabalevsky's 1948 Violin Concerto. Stella is a senior at University High School in Urbana, and her excellent skills with the violin have been evident in solo and chamber music appearances with the East Central Illlinois Youth Orchestra, directed by Kevin Kelly. She played the opening movement of Kabalevsky's Concerto with evident energy and lyrical feeling, against Kabalevsky's brassy orchestral accompaniment, which at times overwhelmed the violin part.

Next came Taiwanese pianist Chia-Ying Chan, a competition winner in the open category, who has studied with Timothy Ehlen of the UIUC Piano faculty. She performed the piano part in the opening movement of Ludwig van Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4. Chan impressed me with her fluent technique and urgent phrasing, and she interacted expertly with the well-performed and -conducted accompaniment of the Sinfonia. In the strong applause at the end of the movement, a young girl and two young boys brought floral tributes out to her.

The next winner in the open category of the competition was Hana Lim, who played the solo in the opening movement of the famous and iconic Piano Concerto No. 2 of Sergei Rachmaninoff. Lim comes from South Korea and is a doctoral student at UIUC, studying with Hobson.

I must say that the placing of Beethoven next to Rachmaninoff was not quite flattering to the latter. That said, Lim brought into strong relief the romantic yearnings of this famous music. The haunting horn solo part was very well played, and Lim's accomplished playing and the dramatic conducting of the Sinfonia players by Hobson resulted in a very strong conclusion to the concerto movement.

The evening ended with a delightful performance of Benjamin Britten's "Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra." The various choirs of the Sinfonia performed brilliantly, and the spoken commentary was delivered with droll humor by WILL's Roger Cooper. Cooper's ironic comments about percussion instruments as "anything you can hit!," and his comparison of the string bass players to "grumbly grandfathers" drew laughter from the audience. Britten's final fugue brought to a successful end this highly pleasurable salute to youth and served as piquant appetizer to Garcia's "Pizza in the Pan" in the lobby.

The famous Takacs Quartet came to town on Oct. 5 and gave a magisterial performance of quartets by Josef Haydn, Dimitri Shostakovich and Johannes Brahms. The members of this fine ensemble, in residence at the University of Colorado at Boulder, have acted as mentors to the players in our own Jupiter Quartet. Karoly Schranz, violin, and Andras Fejer, cello, have been with this quartet since its founding in Budapest in 1975. Later arrivals are Edward Dusinberre, violin, from England, and Geraldine Walther, viola, from Florida. This group played in Krannert in 2013 and in 2015, when they also played different quartets of Haydn and Shostakovich.

They opened their program with a quartet by Haydn, widely admired as the inventor of the string quartet genre. This work, Quartet in D Major, Op. 76, No. 5, has acquired the title "Largo," thanks to the sublimely lovely melody of the second movement. The Takacs members played it ravishingly, so much so that one might repeat with Goethe's Faust, "Stay, thou art so beautiful." The rest of the work received a strong and energetic hearing by the Takacs group, ending with the whirligig finale.

The second work on the program, Shostakovich's 1966 Quartet No. 11 in F Minor, was a memorial tribute to V.P Shirinsky, music professor and chamber musician, who had played many of Shostakovitch's quartets. The Takacs group is known for its fearlessness of attack, and this seven-movement work drew from them an unbuttoned wild ride from screams of anguish to weird, eccentric jiggling. And yes, I did get lost in its multi-movement maze.

The final work on the program was Brahms' Third String Quartet. This jolly, for Brahms, piece starts off with a hunting-like motif which turns up later in the variation finale. Also notable was the third "Agitato" movement in which all players used mutes except the violist, which resulted in eerily muted agitation. After the heroically played end of the Brahms' work, a standing ovation broke out which elicited an encore, the finale of Haydn's Quartet, Op. 76, No. 2 in D Minor (nicknamed "Fifths"), which was dashed off by the Takacs Quartet with brilliant virtuosity.

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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