At the University of Illinois Symphony Orchestra concert of April 5, music director Donald Schleicher was presented with the University Conductor of the Year Award by the Illinois Council of Orchestras.
Gregory Clemons, on behalf of the council, said that in the history of the organization, this was only the second such award given to a university conductor.
The level of playing by this ensemble at this concert was ample evidence of the level of excellence to which Schleicher has raised and maintained this first-rate student ensemble.
The opening work, Claude Debussy's "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun," was conducted with clarity and tasteful sensitivity by graduate student conductor Brandon Eldredge.
The opening flute solo was lovely, and it was followed by fine playing by the solo clarinet and oboe. Such was the delicacy and transparency of Debussy's orchestration that a triangle note midway through the piece had an almost explosive effect. All in all, it was a lovely performance.
Igor Stravinsky's Symphony in C, which followed the Debussy piece, was not a hit when it came out in 1940, and I do not think I have ever heard a live concert performance of it. Belonging to Stravinsky's neo-classical period, it has the composer's usual trademarks, complex rhythms, abrupt changes of mood, and a somewhat cool level of emotional involvement.
This is not easy music to perform, and Schleicher drew from the ensemble a performance that conveyed the composer's power of holding one's attention through the freshness of his ideas.
The major work on this program was perhaps Ludwig van Beethoven's greatest Piano Concerto, No. 5 in E-flat Major, bearing the title of "The Emperor." Timothy Ehlen, UI associate professor of piano, splendidly conveyed the grandeur and excitement of the solo part. He played the less bravura parts of the solo with admirable clarity of line, and projected the emotional power of Beethoven's lovely melodies. Many keyboard players have individual quirks, and Ehlen has a very quick release from the keyboard, as if recoiling from an electric shock.
The orchestra under Schleicher gave firm support to Ehlen's playing. The strings played with silken loveliness at the opening of the slow movement, and in the Rondo finale, Ehlen and the orchestra combined for a most exciting conclusion.
Sindonia parade of stars
The Sinfonia da Camera ended its season last week with its "Rush Hour" Concert at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. It was a veritable parade of stars, all of them UI faculty!
Violinist Stefan Milenkovich offered a tour de force reading of Pablo de Sarasate's "Carmen Fantasy on themes of Bizet," Op. 26. He played brilliantly Sarasate's bag of virtuoso tricks, including double stopping, and pizzicato notes at lightning speeds.
Trumpeter Ronald Romm offered a "Salute to Rafael Mendez" (1901-81), the famous Mexican trumpet player. Romm began with exciting fast and slow playing in "The Bullfighter's Prayer" and he concluded with the lilting melodies of Juventino Rosas' "Over the Waves," best known as sung to the words "When you are in love, it's the loveliest time of the year." Romm plays his instrument with such evident joy that he is a delight to watch and hear.
Ian Hobson doubled as piano soloist and conductor in Frederic Chopin's "Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise Brilliante," Op. 22.
The opening phrase of the "Andante" section was like an aria from a bel canto opera, and was played with a delightful hesitation by Hobson.
In the Polonaise, Hobson played with his accustomed virtuoso prowess, ably assisted by the Sinfonia players.
After such rich musical confections, what could be an appropriate climax? Well, the choice of Peter Tchaikovsky's "Solemn Overture, 1812," was the right one. Sometimes referred to as the "world's noisiest overture," this piece has passages along the way which might have made Tchaikovsky wince upon rehearing, but at its grand finale, with bass drum thundering from the balcony, and orchestral bells chiming with rapture, it deserved its reputation as "world's feistist warhorse." Hobson rode this horse with vigor, and the Sinfonia followed.
"1812" was a hard act to follow, but wait! There was Garcia's Pizza in a Pan in the Krannert lobby.
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 email@example.com.