The University of Illinois Symphony concert on Sept. 20 climaxed with an enormously convincing performance of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 (“Titan”). This symphony ends with a thrilling finale and dominates one’s memories of this concert. But there were other pleasures of a smaller scale along the way to the Mahler symphony.
George Gershwin’s “Cuban Overture” was a spinoff of Gershwin’s trip to Cuba early in 1932. It reflects Gershwin’s affection for the dance rhythms and especially for the native percussion instruments of that famous island. Originally called “Rumba,” it was premiered at an outdoor concert in Lewisohn Stadium in New York City in 1932.
Before starting the “Cuban Overture,” conductor Donald Schleicher introduced the student percussionists who played the Cuban instruments: the bongos, the gourd, the maracas and the claves, which Gershwin called the “Cuban sticks.”
This piece gets off to a rousing start, with the Cuban instruments acting as the special sauce in the Latin mix. Gershwin manipulated his materials adroitly, and this work displays a contrapuntal sophistication beyond his earlier works, but the work lacks a “great Gershwin tune.” That said, Schleicher and the orchestra offered an engaging reading of this good-humored music.
If a flutist is looking for a concert in which you are playing for almost the entire piece, she or he should try Jacques Ibert’s 1934 concerto, written for the renowned French flutist Marcel Moyse, a man who later in his career helped found the Marlboro Music Festival. He recorded this work in the 1930s.
This work offers many challenges to a virtuoso flutist, and Samantha White, who has been studying with UI Professor John Keeble, showed impressive skill in Ibert’s lighthearted opening movement. A more tranquil second movement displayed White’s ability to float a lyrical theme on her instrument, and the rondo finale evoked further virtuoso brilliance on White’s part. She is now continuing her graduate studies at the Manhattan School of Music.
Mahler’s 1888 First Symphony is an exhilarating work, and its vast instrumental canvas demands a wide range of skills from an orchestra. Schleicher and his student players, 96 by my count, showed a highly impressive level of skill. I have long thought that this was a very fine ensemble. But their playing of this Mahler work has lifted my opinion of this conductor and the orchestral members to a new height.
Mahler can write crushing climaxes, and the finale of the first symphony sports two mighty uproars. But much of the delight generated by this work comes from the smallest of sounds, as in the “awakening nature” part of the opening movement, with its bird calls and its far-off horn calls.
Mahler liked to quote himself, and if you know Mahler’s songs, especially the “Songs of a Wayfarer” cycle, you will perceive welcoming signposts on this long symphonic journey. In this feast of orchestral riches, what stood out? Where to begin? Double bass players seldom get to play solos, and Renata Soares Caceres made the most of playing, eloquently, the solo at the beginning of the “Frère Jacques” slow movement. Throughout, the brass choirs were brilliant, the woodwinds were outstanding and the strings had many moments of touching beauty.
At the climax of the finale, the seven horns rose to join the climactic chorale-like melody. At the work’s end, Schleicher walked from section to section, congratulating each, as members of the audience stood, and applauded vigorously.
The next UI Symphony concert will be at 3 p.m. on Oct. Schleicher will lead the orchestra in works by Ottorino Respighi, Osvaldo Golijov and the Violin Concerto by Johannes Brahms, with Jinyou Lee as violin soloist. Lee gave her doctoral recital last spring in Smith Music Hall, and she studies with Professor Stefan Milenkovich.