John Frayne | Hobson and Sinfonia bring it at all-Beethoven bash

John Frayne | Hobson and Sinfonia bring it at all-Beethoven bash

Ian Hobson on March 9 led the Sinfonia da Camera in an all-Beethoven concert in the Foellinger Great Hall in which he directed the orchestra while playing the piano solo in Ludwig van Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 1, Op. 10.

As might be expected from an evening with Beethoven, high drama was on the menu, but there were blissful quiet stretches in which Beethoven used alluring melodies to relax his audience before the storms broke.

The opening playing of the "Coriolan" Overture was performed with strong impulse and precision. In the quiet placating section, the Sinfonia strings were outstanding.

Beethoven's First Piano Concerto (actually his second, but published first) is one of those works for which the phrase "Early Beethoven" is a decided compliment. The opening movement bursts with youthful optimism, and Hobson, with his conducting and piano playing, kept the spirits high. The first movement cadenza displayed Hobson's technical mastery. The slow movement is one of Beethoven's loveliest lyrical expressions, with Hobson's piano delicately elaborating on the broad stream of orchestral melody. Orchestra and piano tore into the finale in which there was excellent rapport between orchestra and piano. A grand final climax led to a round of applause that had the orchestra standing twice.

In Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, famous for its orgiastic round of dance melodies, Hobson decided on a fast and furious approach. To be sure, the slow movement unfolded leisurely, with fine work by the strings and woodwinds. The finale was breathtaking, probably literally for the wind players, and figuratively for us in the audience. Oddly enough, I think the supreme climax came a little before the final crushing chords. Whether I misheard or not, the final result was a storm of applause during which many in the audience stood.

The next Sinfonia concert, called "A Suite Ending," will offer a new work, "Sunset in All Directions for Cello and Chamber Orchestra," by UIUC Composition Professor Stephen Taylor.

Quartet terrific. On March 4, I attended a concert by the youthful Calidore String Quartet, which won the grand M-Prize in 2017 at the international chamber arts competition at the University of Michigan. The Calidore Quartet, with members Jeffrey Myers and Ryan Meehan, violins; Jeremy Berry, viola; and Estelle Choi, cello, is based in Los Angeles, hence the name: "Cal" for California," and "doré" French for "golden."

This group started its program with Felix Mendelssohn's 1838 String Quartet No. 3 in D Major, Op. 44, No. 1. The opening movement was played with clear textures in which Mendelssohn's famous skills in counterpoint made each instrument's line seem in perfect balance. The Mozartean echoes in this work were evident in the slow motion Menuetto in the second movement instead of the usual Mendelssohn light-footed Scherzo. The 1964 String Quartet No. 9 in E-flat Major, Op. 117, by Dimitri Shostakovich, showed that the Calidore members can play rough when the composer demands it. The Allegro finale of this Quartet displayed Shostakovich in one of his wild, demonic moods, and the Calidores galloped to a "wow," crowd-pleasing finish.

The major work on the program was Beethoven's 1806 String Quartet No. 7, the first of the three Quartets commissioned by Count Andrey Razumovsky, the Russian Ambassador to the Court of Vienna. Here this ensemble showed its maturity in projecting the high level of compositional skills Beethoven reached in these middle period quartets, and these players were also able to convey the basic melodic and harmonic treasures that make these quartets so beloved.

In the whirling finale, Beethoven put through its paces a Russian folk song, possibly suggested by Count Razumovsky. The folk song Beethoven chose for the 7th Quartet tells of a soldier turned old by the military life, and begins "Ah!, is mine to be such a fate, such a bitter lot, such an unlucky star." The original song was marked "slow," but Beethoven gave it a faster whirling treatment. The Calidore group excelled in playing, with great energy, the exciting conclusion of this masterwork. The audience reaction was so strong that this group offered as encore the second movement of Wolfgang Mozart's Divertimento No. 2 in F Major, played with light-fingered finesse by the Calidores.

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.