There was a breakthrough Tuesday evening in Foellinger Great Hall at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts.
The last time I was in that hall, on March 12, 2020, I heard a concert given by the University of Illinois Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Professor Donald Schleicher. Various UI choruses and soloist Riccardo Herrera joined the orchestra in Dimitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13 (“Babi Yar”), and that ensemble was going to bring that piece to an appearance in New York’s Carnegie Hall.
We all know now what happened next, when the curtain came down with a bang on public musical life here and elsewhere.
The keynote of Wednesday’s concert was renewal, and change. Schleicher has retired, and the new conductor of the UI Symphony and director of orchestras at the UI is William Eddins, an African American musician of wide experience on podiums in this country and abroad.
He conducted the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra from 2004 to 2017, and he was also Principal Guest Conductor of the RTE National Symphony Orchestra (Ireland) from 2001 to 2006.
He has been guest conductor of the New York Philharmonic, the St. Louis Symphony and the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the list of orchestras with which he has appeared has 57 entries.
Eddins, on the podium, gives the impression of strong, pent-up energy about to explode. And in the opening work, Maurice Ravel’s “Alborada del Gracioso” (“The Morning Song of a Jester”), Ravel gave opportunities from sudden shifts of sound volume, and the student players of this orchestra responded to Eddins’ attacks as if galvanized by collective electric shocks.
The playing of quiet passages was also on a high level of execution, and the droll solos for bassoon merited the solo bow at the end of the Ravel piece. The wow ending of the “Alborada” drew from Eddins an enthusiastic movement that almost carried him off the podium.
Ravel received some Spanish influence from his Basque mother, but the second composer to be heard, Manuel de Falla, was Spanish to his fingertips.
The dances from Suite No. 2 from the ballet “The Three-Cornered Hat” had more opportunity for wild, thrilling playing from Eddins and the student players, and over and over, we heard infectious crescendos.
The “Final Dance” ended with a wild, orgiastic frenzy, capped by a chord that seemed either underplayed or indecisive.
Silence followed, and Eddins said something like “You may applaud,” followed by strong applause.
Perhaps we in the audience were just dazed by the excitement of the music, or maybe that last chord left us wondering if there was more.
One of Ludwig van Beethoven’s most famous works, the mighty Fifth Symphony, ended the program.
I hope that some members of the large audience in Foellinger Great Hall, made up largely of young students, were hearing this work for the first time, and I envy such people.
I have been listening to it all my life, and it never stops dazzling me. Apollo, the god of perfect form, battles with Dionysus, the god of wild abandon, and the result is the roller-coaster ride of rhythm and dynamic changes.
Everything seems about to blow apart, yet those first four notes hold it together.
Eddins reveled in the series of Beethoven’s sudden attacks, and the orchestra responded with skill and vigor.
The lower strings were excellent in the goblin dance (my term) of the Scherzo, and the brass were triumphant in the victorious finale.
At Beethoven’s final chord, the audience rose quickly and applauded wildly.
The hall sounded and looked wonderful; we were home again, and all those undergrads now had something to tell their grandkids.
On Oct. 22, the UI Symphony will be back with Peter Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, and distinguished visiting composer John Harbison will condu ct his 2008 Fifth Symphony, in which two vocal soloists sing texts on the Orpheus and Eurydice myth.