The Champaign-Urbana Symphony Orchestra concert on Feb. 1 was dedicated to the memory of Marilynne Davis, who served as president of the CUSO board from 2014 to 2018. Ms. Davis passed away in December.
The star of this concert was the brilliant violin virtuoso Rachel Barton Pine, who played the solo part in Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto. We in Illinois have long realized the high level of Barton Pine’s extraordinary talent. In recent decades her fame has rightly become worldwide.
The violinist for whom Barber wrote his 1939 Violin Concerto complained that the first two movements did not sufficiently show off his virtuosity. True, most of this Concerto would not have pleased Paganini. But this work has marvelous, lush, romantic melodies and Barton Pine played them with an opulent, rich tone. She was also outstanding in the Sibelius-like dramatic entries in the first movement. In the slow movement, her delivery of the big melody, on the lower violin strings, was deeply moving.
The “moto perpetuo” finale of the Barber work was his answer to the criticism of “not enough fireworks.” Fireworks are Barton Pine’s specialty, and she and the orchestra flew through this whirlwind movement with breathtaking effects. The applause from the standing audience was uproarious. As encore, she played Marc O’Connor’s “Caprice No. 1, Fiddle Tunes.” As the notes poured from her violin, she brought her classical skills to bear on O’Connor’s down-home American idiom. This virtuoso display had the audience on their feet all over again. For R.B.P., this was clearly a triumph.
The orchestra also played two overtures at the start of the two parts of the concert. The majesty of Wolfgang Mozart’s “Magic Flute” Overture, and the quicksilver brilliance of Bedrich Smetana’s “Bartered Bride” Overture came through thanks to Stephen Alltop’s urgent beat.
The concert concluded with a rousing and highly dramatic account of Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony No. 8. Here, Alltop managed the work’s electric changes of mood and dynamics with a master’s hand. During the stormy applause, he called for well-deserved bows for the trumpets, woodwinds and strings.
On Feb. 4, the members of the Jupiter String Quartet, Nelson Lee, violin; Meg Freivogel, violin; Liz Freivogel, viola; and Daniel McDonough, cello, gave a pleasurable concert of quartets by Ludwig van Beethoven, Dimitri Shostakovich and Felix Mendelssohn. The program opened with Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 10, “Harp.” As is well known, Beethoven’s quartets come in bunches: early, middle and late. No. 10, written in 1809, and No. 11 of 1811, are outliers, coming between the “Razumovsky” quartets of 1806 and the late quartets, of 1823-26. The “Harp” Quartet, so called from the pizzicato section of its first movement, is less often played, and that is our loss, for it has many delights, which came out eloquently in the Jupiter’s elegantly phrased performance. But here Beethoven had also more serious matters to explore, and the second movement, with its opening sweet melody, is followed by a section that could even be called “tearful,” a harbinger of the great adagio movements of the late quartets.
If the Beethoven Quartet explored, in part, serious emotions, the Quartet No. 11 by Shostakovich was written as a memorial for Vasily Shirinsky, a violinist who had played in the premiers of many of the composer’s quartets, and hence, expressed very direct and personal grief. But, as is typical of Shostakovich, in this Quartet, dirge-like passages alternated with a wry little dance theme. In this seven-movement, continuous work, it is easy to get lost, but one guidepost was the fourth movement “Humoresque,” in which Shostakovich introduced cuckoo calls. It seems that there is a Russian folk belief that the number of cuckoo calls you hear signifies the number of years you have left to live. The Jupiters gave a highly dramatic reading of the Shostakovich, a work of such strong contrasts, which drew from this quartet playing of admirable versatility.
The rest of the concert showed a return to classical good manners in Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No. 3, Op. 44, No. 1, a work in which he showed that one can give pleasure without baring one’s soul. After a feather light “Minuetto” and a shimmering “Andante” movement, the Jupiters finished their insightful performance with Mendelssohn’s delightful “Saltarello” finale. The excitement of the finale moved the audience to rise and acclaim this fine quartet, which adds so much joy to this community.