The University of Illinois Symphony Orchestra, under its music director and conductor Donald Schleicher, opened its season Sept. 22 with a concert in the Foellinger Great Hall at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts.
The concert opened with Leopold Stokowski's famous transcription of Johann Sebastian Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor for solo organ. Playing such music might have seemed a few decades ago like throwing a brick through the authentic instrument movement's window. But time has softened the ardor of the traditionalists, and Stokowski's transcriptions, albeit wildly romantic, are admitted to be good fun. Schleicher and the symphony players drew earth-shaking cadences from this Toccata, and with deliberate pacing, the work resounded to a moving climax.
Reynold Tharp, a UI assistant professor of composition and theory, wrote his piece "Wide sea, changeful heaven" this past summer for the UI Symphony and Schleicher, and it received its world premiere at this concert. In his notes, Tharp explained that his title came from Mary Shelley's novel "Valperga": "The earth is a wide sea and we its passing bubbles; it is a changeful heaven, and we its smallest and swiftest driven vapors; all changes, all passes — nothing is stable, nothing for one moment the same."
Tharp, drawing on a rich palette of orchestral sound, evoked this cosmic sense of change through alternating slow and fast sections. Dark, ominous chords punctuate the moments of change, and there are passages that seem to imitate wave motions and the force of wind. There is near the end a moment of emotional climax with what I would describe as a "tonic sunburst." And after that, the music dies away to a series of pulsing sounds.
All in all I found this piece exciting and enjoyable. Of the performance, let me say that during its 16 minutes or so, I completely forgot I was listening to a student orchestra, such was the assurance of the playing, and the firm direction of Schleicher. Tharp's appearance on stage evoked shouts and cheers from the audience, and he was recalled for a second bow. I look forward to hearing this work again, and I trust other orchestras will soon perform it.
The second half of the concert was devoted to Johannes Brahms' Fourth Symphony. During this complex work the orchestra performed admirably, although I would have liked a little less volume at times from the woodwinds and brass.
Hobson continues Brahms series
Ian Hobson on Sept. 28 continued his series on the solo and chamber music for piano of Brahms. The first part of the concert was devoted to Brahms' Sonata in F-sharp minor, Op. 2.
We are often told that Brahms was afraid to challenge Ludwig van Beethoven's supremacy in the symphony. Well, in the area of the piano sonata, Brahms was not afraid in such works as the F Sharp Minor to provoke comparison with Beethoven. This is assertive and strenuous music, and Hobson played the opening movement with bracing bravura.
The more lyrical second movement, a set of variations on an old German song, "Mir ist leide" ("It makes me sad that winter has bared the wood and heath."), attributed to the Minnesinger Kraft von Toggenburg, offers welcome release to the storms of the first movement. The scherzo movement has an especially pleasing melody in the trio section, which Brahms repeats to a rousing climax. The finale, played with fierce energy, I found somewhat overwhelming.
The balance of this somewhat short program was given over to a familiar and much beloved Brahms work, the Piano Trio in B Major, Op. 8. Hobson noted that the original Op. 8 Trio of 1854 was extensively revised in 1889, and that we would hear the revised version. Critics have maintained that this revised version is not Brahms' first piano trio but rather his last.
Hobson was joined in this trio by two young UI faculty members, violinist Stefan Milenkovich and cellist Daniel McDonough (of the Jupiter Quartet). These three musicians gave a memorable performance of the trio, alternating between the forceful and the gentle sides of Brahms. At the dramatic conclusion, the audience in Smith Hall responded and recalled Hobson, Milenkovich and McDonough twice for repeated applause.
John Frayne hosts "Classics of the Phonograph" on Saturdays at WILL-FM and, in retirement, teaches at the University of Illinois. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.