John Frayne: Hobson, Sinfonia give memorable performance

John Frayne: Hobson, Sinfonia give memorable performance

The engaging concert by the Sinfonia da Camera on Oct. 21 offered "something old and something new" as well as two familiar masterpieces. The first two works, Cipriani Potter's 1837 Overture to "The Tempest" and Richard Prior's 2016 Concerto for Flute and Orchestra, were unknown to me, and perhaps I was not alone. The last two works, Camille Saint-Saens' Piano Concerto No. 2 and Franz Schubert's Symphony No. 8, "Unfinished," are, in varying degrees, repertory staples.

Potter (1792-1871) was a familiar figure on the London musical scene in the first half of the 19th century. A pianist, he introduced concertos by Mozart and Beethoven to British audiences. He had the distinction in 1817 of meeting Beethoven, who referred to him as "Botter" and who recommended teachers for him. A composer of nine symphonies and much piano music, Potter's "Tempest" Overture came just about when he stopped composing.

On the evidence of Ian Hobson and the Sinfonia's performance, this work has engaging melodies and begins with an unusual orchestral swell, which marks him as having an individual, distinctive voice. There are available CDs of his 4th and 10th symphonies, and his 2nd and 4th piano concertos.

Prior (1966) was born and educated in Britain, and he is a professor at Emory University in Atlanta. His 2016 Concerto for Flute and Orchestra was written for University of Illinois Professor Jonathan Keeble, and Keeble played the premiere of this work with the La Grange Symphony in 2016. This work offers ample opportunity for Keeble to display his formidable virtuoso skills and also to project a wide spectrum of emotions, from joyful exuberance to searing grief.

Prior also wrote a rich scoring for the orchestra. The entry of the flute is accompanied by distinctive phrases for the harp and percussion instruments, and these sounds are evoked later on to give the concerto a feeling of continuity. Prior likes sudden climaxes, and each movement had eruptions of orchestral power, with the solo flute riding over the blast. The middle movement was a memorial tribute to 16-year-old Shira Banki, who was killed during a march in Jerusalem by a religious zealot. Such an outpouring of grief gave an admirable weight to this concerto. At the conclusion of the piece, during strong and sustained applause, composer Prior was called to the stage, where he shared bows with Keeble and Hobson.

Hobson's brilliant playing of the solo part in Saint-Saens' Piano Concerto No. 2 goes way back in the history of the Sinfonia da Camera. Recorded in 1985 for the Arabesque label, it was one of his earliest recordings with the Sinfonia. At this concert, Hobson conducted from the piano, facing the orchestra, and in sound level, orchestra and soloist were on an even keel, with Hobson's thunderous chords at times drowning out the accompaniment. This work has many unusual features, and the middle movement, rather than being slow and reflective, is a sparkling scherzo, and the give and take of Hobson and the Sinfonia players was a sustained delight.

The concert ended with one of the greatest pieces of classical music, Schubert's Symphony No. 8, written in 1822, with the first two movements finished but lacking the last two movements. It was given to a member of the Huttenbrenner family, in whose possession it collected dust until 1860. It was first performed in 1865 and acclaimed as a masterpiece. One wonders what its effect might have been had it been performed in 1822, when Schubert had about six years to live. His contemporary fame might have been greater. Hobson stressed the dramatic power of the opening movement, and in the second movement, the playing of the woodwinds in the echoing passages was memorably touching.

During the hefty applause at the end, Hobson called for solo bows from players of the oboe, flute, clarinet, bassoon and horn solos, and then shook hands with the first desk string players.

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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