The Sinfonia da Camera, led by Ian Hobson, resumed public concerts on Sept. 25 in Smith Memorial Hall on the UI campus. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Hobson had valiantly tried to offer performances. He played a largely solo recital outdoors under a tent, and he organized a series of chamber recitals in a local church, but these were “By invitation only” events. But this concert was open to the public, and it was a joyous event, mainly of celebratory music. Smith Hall itself is showing the results of tasteful renovation, with new seats.
In Smith Hall, with a group as large as the Sinfonia, the sound is somewhat compressed, with less reverberation than in Foellinger Great Hall.
The concert began with Dimitri Shostakovich’s entry in that beloved category: “the World’s Noisiest Overture.” This jolly work reminds me of the giddy euphoria of the finales of some of Shostakovich’s symphonies. Hobson drew from the Sinfonia players a merry din.
The next work was the famous Violin Concerto by Jean Sibelius, played by Ga-Eun Kim, the winner of the 2020 UIUC School of Music Concerto Competition. Kim, who attended high school in Korea, studied at the University of Kansas and Northwestern University, where she earned bachelor and master’s degrees. She has evidently engaged in a multitude of musical activities, among them playing in the Civic Orchestra of Chicago. As the Sibelius Concerto began, I was impressed by Kim’s high level of mastery of her instrument. In the first movement, Kim employed exquisite tone and phrasing in Sibelius’ high climb up the scale to lyric consummation. To my ears, the orchestral outbursts of this movement might have offered stronger contrast to the solo violin. The slow movement drew lovely playing from the Sinfonia’s woodwinds, and Kim played with appealing emotional warmth. In the finale, Kim displayed strong phrasing in Sibelius’ jogging rhythms. Here, with Hobson getting surging support from the orchestra, Kim, with admirable control of the virtuoso fireworks, drove on to a brilliant finish. Most of the audience stood and vigorously applauded. Four floral bouquets were brought by small children to Kim on the stage, and other bouquets were carried to be presented outside the hallway. All in all, Ga-Eun Kim showed strong promise for a successful concert career.
The second half of the program was given over to Peter Tchaikovsky’s 1878 Symphony No. 4 in F Minor. After three symphonies in which Tchaikovsky exercised some emotional control, in the Fourth Symphony, he bared his wounded soul. The original audiences for this music were overwhelmed by its unashamed extravagances. And some critics were openly bigoted in their comments. An example from New York’s “Musical Review,” 1880: “Nothing can redeem the lack of nobleness, the barbarous side by which, according to ethnographs and diplomats, even the most polished Russian at times betrays himself.”
The Symphony begins with the brass choirs blaring the “Fate” motif, which wars throughout the work with man’s desire for happiness. In this performance, Hobson led the Sinfonia members in an at times rousing and often tender expression of Tchaikovsky’s joys and sorrows. In the first movement, the uproar in the orchestra quiets down to a lovely melody, with a relentless, clocklike beat. In the melancholic slow movement, there was fine playing from the oboe and clarinet players. The Scherzo movement evoked trigger-sharp ensemble pizzicato playing by the strings, contrasted by saucy playing by the piccolo during the Russian dance segment.
In the uproarious finale, the suffering hero finds solace in the wild abandon of a folk festival, but even here the Fate theme follows him. Tchaikovsky’s answer to life’s problems may be ambiguous, but it is impossible not to be swept along at the breathless rush to the climactic end. Hobson and the Sinfonia did themselves proud in this invigorating music. The final chords drew cheers from the Smith Hall audience, and Hobson called for solo bows from several of the Sinfonia players, especially from the woodwinds.
On Oct. 16, Hobson and the Sinfonia will celebrate their homecoming at Krannert’s Foellinger Great Hall, when Hobson will be soloist in Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini,” and he will conduct the orchestra in Ludwig van Beethoven’s masterpiece, his Fifth Symphony.