John Frayne | Sweet suite concert ends Sinfonia's season in style

John Frayne | Sweet suite concert ends Sinfonia's season in style

The season-ending concert by the Sinfonia da Camera, conducted by Ian Hobson, had the eye-catching title "A Sweet Ending." Indeed, two of the longer works were suites from famous works, one using ballet music from Sergei Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet," and the other a suite from Richard Strauss' most popular opera, "Der Rosenkavalier." Also on the program was a work by UI Professor Stephen Taylor, "Sunset in All Directions," with a solo performance by UIUC faculty member Dmitry Kouzov, cellist.

The opening work, Peter Tchaikovsky's famous "Capriccio Italien," is a suite of sorts, using a parade of popular Italian melodies heard by Tchaikovsky during his happy stay in Rome in 1879-80. But "suite" can be a pun of "sweet," and the Italian Caprice is indeed a musical confectionary dream. Especially the Sinfonia brass, but also all the instruments made a joyous meal of it, and this listener, relishing it all the way, can almost forgive the way Tchaikovsky beats one of the major themes into submission at the end.

Prokofiev had troubles in getting his ballet music for "Romeo and Juliet" finally produced in the USSR, but he realized early the possible use in concerts of this glorious music, and two orchestral suites were premiered a few years before the ballet. The composer ignored the dramatic sequence in organizing his suites, but Hobson followed the drama's unfolding in offering a selection from the original suites Nos. 1 and 2. While enjoying the grand gestures in this music, I was particularly delighted by the Sinfonia's playing of the exquisitely orchestrated dances such as "Dance" (Suite 1, 4) and "Dance of the Maids from the Antilles" (Suite 2, 6). Among the fine solo performances, Nicholas Albanese's playing of the tuba was outstanding, as was Muen Wei's at the celeste.

Taylor, UIUC Professor of Composition, in August 2017, went with his family to Carbondale to see the solar eclipse. The title of his piece describing his experience, "Sunset in All Directions," was the inspiration of his friend, Matthew Ando. In the process of composition, the work evolved into what Taylor calls "the musical elements of a mini-concerto for cello and orchestra." Indeed, this work offered Dmitry Kouzov the opportunity to display his skills at the cello in a wide range of moods and technical displays. Kouzov showed admirable skill in giving the work an internal coherence. From the small ensemble, attractive solos for celeste, harp, oboe, clarinet and piano supplied additional timbral variety. After 13 minutes or so, the piece quickly ended, somewhat to my surprise. The composer joined Hobson and the players to receive the warm applause of the audience. A visual display of the actual eclipse might have made the programmatic structure of the piece clearer.

The concert ended with Strauss' "Rosenkavalier Suite," which is both "suite" and "sweet" to the quintessential degree. It was a rousing, romping ending to a memorable season.

Xue delivers. Chinese pianist Lishan Xue was the winner of the Krannert Center Debut Artist Award, and her program on April 22 was a veritable survey of the piano repertory from J. S. Bach to Gyorgy Ligeti. The impression of comprehensiveness was strengthened by the six pages of notes on the composers played, by Lucy Miller Murray. Xue's fine touch was demonstrated in Bach's Prelude and Fugue No. 4 in C-sharp Minor from Book Two of the "Well-Tempered Clavier," and her ability to transmit a wistful mood in W.A. Mozart's Rondo in A Minor, K. 511. Xue's playing of the six short pieces that make up J. Brahms' "Fantasien," Op. 116, showed a fine sense of drama in the alternating from intimate moments to grandiose proclamations.

One of the more inventive touches of her recital was in her juxtaposing two sets of études by F. Chopin, S. Rachmaninoff and Ligeti. Xue's performing of Chopin's études was dazzling, with cascading scales, her Rachmaninoff showed the darker undercurrents of his "Études-Tableaux," and her playing of Ligeti's études was courageously aggressive.

Two Chinese works contrasted the dreamy nature mysticism of "Autumn Moon over a Calm Lake" (transcribed by Peixun Chen), and the joyous melodies of "Five Yunnan Folk Songs" (transcribed by Jianzhong Wang). At the end of the folk songs, Xue gave a puckish nod of the head, which drew a chuckle from the audience. The printed program ended with a rousing playing of Ravel's tour de force, "Alborada del gracioso" ("The Morning Song of the Jester"), which brought the audience to its feet.

Xue's first choice of encore was a surprise; it was G. Gershwin's own piano version of his sultry classic "The Man I Love," and her second encore was D. Scarlatti's Sonata in D Minor, K. 32. It was an enlightening recital that promises a bright future.

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.