John Frayne: UI Symphony gave Mozart a great birthday present

John Frayne: UI Symphony gave Mozart a great birthday present

The 262nd birthday of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was celebrated in the Foellinger Great Hall on Jan. 27 by the University of Illinois Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Professor Donald Schleicher. Whether on the drawing power of Mozart or that of the guest artists, the concert hall was crowded and the air was festive.

The proceedings opened with "Happy Birthday" sung to "Woolfie," as his wife calls him in "Amadeus." The birthday song was arranged by Kolton Heeren, who plays the bass in the UI Symphony.

After a peppy performance of the Overture to Mozart's opera "The Marriage of Figaro," energetically conducted by Schleicher, we heard selections from the opera soon to be performed by UIUC's Lyric TheatreRochelle Sennet, William Heiles and Timothy Ehlen, who collectively played Mozart's 1776 Piano Concerto No. 7 in F for Three Pianos. Mozart wrote this work for Countess Lodron and her two daughters, and one is told that the three piano parts are of varying difficulty. This work is rather bland compared to some of Mozart's late masterpieces in this genre, but it is an achievement to get three soloists and orchestra working smoothly together. With conductor Schleicher's clear beat and the idiomatic playing of the soloists the charms of this work came clearly across. From where I was sitting I could not see all three pianists, so I could not figure out who was playing the most difficult part, and I wonder if I will ever see three grand pianos on the FGH stage again!

The next day, I attended an afternoon performance in the Sunday Salon series by Korean guitarist Jiji (full name Jiyeon Kim), who is a winner of the Concert Artists Guild Competition. Jiji offered a very impressive program of works by 10 composers, five of whom are familiar to most concertgoers, Johann Sebastian Bach, Marin Marais, Domenico Scarlatti, Isaac Albeniz and Alberto Ginastera. The other five were contemporary composers who ranged from the fairly familiar, Leo Brouwer and Steve Reich, to composers whose works were new to me such as Benjamin Verdery, Paul Lansky and Gulli Björnsson, Iceland. Let me say at once that Jiji demonstrated extraordinary skills in her playing of such tour de force works as Ginastera's sweeping 1976 Sonata for Guitar, as well as in her idiomatic playing of Baroque composers.

I commend Jiji for the daring of her programming of such exploratory works as Björnsson's "Dim Waves Rise" in which her solo playing was supplemented by an electronic setup that produced hypnotic impulses imitating ocean waves. The composer Björnsson was present at the performance and he stood to accept the strong applause for his piece.

Less impressive for me was the excessively repetitious 1987 "Electric Counterpoint" by Steve Reich in which a reverberation unit repeated, on and on, Jiji's chords.

From the rear of the stage, Jiji introduced her pieces at times at considerable length. Alas, without microphone, the audience members on stage may have understood her words, but from where I was sitting in the balcony her words could not be understood. On the other hand, the copious program notes by Lucy Miller Murray offered full information on the composers and the works played.

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.