John Frayne | CUSO a delight while Vienna Piano Trio hits high notes

John Frayne | CUSO a delight while Vienna Piano Trio hits high notes

The March 2 Champaign-Urbana Symphony concert was entitled "Music of Destiny," in which Maestro Stephen Alltop conducted the symphony in music by Stacy Garrop, the composer-in-residence for this season and next. Also heard were Mendelssohn's masterpiece, his Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, and then, perhaps the greatest symphony of them all, Beethoven's Fifth.

The opening work consisted of three movements from Garrop's "Mythology Symphony," and as an introduction to these sections, Garrop had the orchestra play key motifs that illustrate persons or events in these mythic narratives.

The first offering, movement 3, was entitled "The Lovely Sirens," bird-like women whose lovely song lured sailors — like the comrades of Odysseus in Homer's epic — onto ship-killing rocks. The music of this movement included a piercing bird-like cry, and a drum sequence, resembling the "S.O.S." code, which describes the panic of the sailors as they approach the deadly rocks.

Next came movement 4, "The Fates of Man," which began with a plaintive melody played with due solemnity by first cellist Barbara Hedlund. This melody symbolized a man who pleads, in vain, for a release from the implacable demands of the Fates of Greek mythology.

Lastly came movement 5, "Pandora Undone," which featured a flute solo, in a description of what happens when Pandora opens the box that contains the world's woes, which are violently depicted, but the movement ends hopefully.

With a vivid sense of orchestral color, Garrop unleashed mighty climaxes in these three episodes, and the C-U Symphony members, especially the brasses, played this highly expressive music with evident enthusiasm. Garrop has chosen to write illustrative music, more popular in another era as "Program Music." Today, such music is most often heard in venues where it supports a dramatic narrative, whether in opera, ballet or films.

These excerpts from her symphony show that her command of the modern orchestral resources is quite impressive. This listener carried away most vividly impressions of violent, panic-driven emotions. One might yearn for evocations of more pleasurable feelings. At the end of this three-movement sequence, Garrop came to the stage to acknowledge the strong applause.

The beauties of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E-Minor (there is a youthful work in this genre) are well known, but it is a special delight to hear it played by so fine a violinist as Stefan Milenkovich. With super tone and a firm command of the technical challenges involved, Milenkovich was strong in the dramatic segments and meltingly persuasive in the songful middle movement. His superb fingering resulted in an electrifying conclusion of both soloist and the well-conducted orchestra. During the curtain calls, Alltop gave Milenkovich a push back onto the stage, where he played admirably a movement from Bach's solo violin Partita No. 2.

The concert came to a triumphant conclusion with Beethoven's mighty Fifth Symphony. No matter how often heard, this work never stops being a marvel of delight. Its wildly triumphant conclusion ended a highly successful concert.

The previous night I attended a concert of chamber music in the FGH by the widely acclaimed Vienna Piano Trio, consisting of two Austrians, Matthias Gredler, cello, and Stefan Mendl, piano, and American David McCarroll, violin. They played three piano trios, two by Robert Schumann (Op. 63 and 80), and one by Johannes Brahms (Op. 87). These works are not among the "top hits" of the piano trio repertory, but all three had subtle and exciting musical riches that made the evening a delight.

The Trio began with the less famous of the two Schumann trios written in 1847. This work, in F Major, is full of lovely melodies, and the last movement featured in the piano part fluttering phrases typical of Schumann's keyboard style.

The second work was the Brahms Trio No. 2 in C major, an eloquent, large-scale work that offered a cross-section of Brahmsian musical gestures. The work began with a craggy theme, which later was joined by a subtly sweet melody that developed into heroic emotive surges. The second movement unfolded with a series of five variations, covering wildly contrasted emotions. Here and elsewhere the trio played with dramatic, nuanced phrasing, and an alluring blending of voices. The speedy, brilliant finale resulted in a storm of applause.

The Schumann Piano Trio No. 1 in D Minor is the only one of his trios to have entered the repertory, and it is easy to hear why. The opening movement sings of sweet passion, and an eloquent solo for the cello is only one of many precious moments. The joyful finale was played with great brio, and the high level of playing all evening earned the Vienna Trio a standing ovation. As encore, they played the delicious fourth movement of Antonin Dvorak's "Dumky" Trio. This was indeed a chamber music "top hit"!

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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