John Frayne | Sinfonia's 'Anniversary Concert' a fitting tribute to composers

John Frayne | Sinfonia's 'Anniversary Concert' a fitting tribute to composers

The Sinfonia da Camera concert on Feb. 17 was billed as "An Anniversary Concert" — not, to be sure, an anniversary of the Sinfonia, which is in its 34th year, but of the four composers on the program.

First and foremost, this concert was celebrating the 100th anniversary of Leonard Bernstein's birth in 1918, and also joining the party was Gioachino Rossini, on the 150th anniversary of his death in 1868, Charles Gounod on the 200th anniversary of his birth in 1818, and finally Claude Debussy, who died in 1918, the year of Bernstein's birth.

The first work on the program opened with a stereophonic blast from two side drums on opposing sides of the stage in Rossini's Overture to the seldom-performed comic opera, "The Thieving Magpie." Ian Hobson and the Sinfonia players then launched into a peppy march, which inevitably led to a series of delightful Rossini trademark crescendos. Midway through these crescendos I had the feeling that happy music just doesn't get any better than this!

Gounod's 1885 "Petite Symphonie" is indeed "little." The Foellinger Great Hall stage clearer off, leaving nine wind players to perform this charming music. The opening movement sported a jolly theme, and the second movement introduced an aery lyrical theme, first intoned by the flute, with oboe and other instruments following in various combinations. The happy dance of the scherzo, and a jagged theme of the finale, gave ample opportunities for fine virtuosic playing by the wind instrumentalists. The excellent players were Jonathan Keeble, flute, John Dee and Taylor Vulgamore, oboe, J. David Harris and Jiyeon Choi, clarinets, Kelly Swensson and Christopher Raymond, bassoon, and Bernhard Scully and Katie Glassman, horns. "Scorn not the sonnet," said the poet William Wordsworth, and this Gounod piece shows that a little thing can have memorable charms.

The guest soloist at this concert was the distinguished UI saxophone Professor Debra Richtmeyer. She played the solo part in Debussy's "Rhapsody for Orchestra and Saxophone," a work with a background story that would give pause to anyone thinking of commissioning a piece of music. Around 1901, a lady named Elisa Hall, who had taken up the saxophone because of hearing loss, commissioned a piece for it from Debussy, who disliked writing music to order. In 1903, still with no music in sight, Mrs. Hall came to Paris to get a progress report. Although Debussy seemed to know nothing of the saxophone initially, a work was finally finished, but Hall did not receive it until 1919, and since she had gone completely deaf by then, she never played nor heard the work.

This piece does stress the saxophone's variety of sounds, and Richtmeyer played Debussy's suave composition with lovely tone and sensitive phrasing. The orchestration was completed after Debussy's death in 1918 by Jean Roger-Ducasse, and it is fascinating to hear little echoes of the master's "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun" and "La Mer." Richtmeyer's polished playing of the alto saxophone evoked strong applause during her return to the stage.

The biggest hit of Bernstein's life was his Broadway musical "West Side Story," loosely based on William Shakespeare's drama about the "star-crossed" lovers, Romeo and Juliet. Bernstein gathered in some of the numbers of the show into a suite called "Symphonic Dances." This work shows what a fine ear Bernstein had for exquisite blending of instrumental timbres in the softer passages, and the "Somewhere" section displays Bernstein's good taste in bringing to a moving climax one of the most famous hit numbers of the show. Skillfully conducted by Hobson, the players of the Sinfonia, especially the brass, oboes, flute and horns, excelled throughout the piece, and in the Mambo and Cha-Cha dances Ricardo Flores and the percussionists, and timpanist William Moersch, played with strength and finesse.

I think Bernstein is one of the greatest conductors of the last half of the 20th century, but I find that his own music involves the word "pretentiousness." He could not resist trying to out-Mahler Mahler, and out-pound Stravinsky. The "Rumble" music near the end of the "Symphonic Dances" may have an essential part in the "West Side Story" dramatic plot, but it was for me in this Suite not to be enjoyed but to be endured. The "finale" of this suite does have lovely woodwind writing, and the Sinfonia players made the most of it.

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.