MYA’s Sizzling Scheherazade
Conductor Allan Dennis isn’t shy about tackling some of the most substantial and challenging works in the orchestral repertoire when programming for his Midwest Young Artists Conservatory Symphony Orchestra. Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, Rachmaninoff’s Second, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, and a few Strauss tone poems are among the many towering works he and his young musicians have tackled with a maturity and technical acumen well beyond what can be reasonably expected from high school aged artists.
Sunday at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall in Evanston, Dr. Dennis added another big showpiece to the MYAC repertoire with a superb account of Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s ever popular warhorse, Scheherazade. As expected, the reading was energized with the infectious exuberance and raw vitality audiences have come to expect from the orchestra. But, in a promising sign in this first concert of the 2018/2019 season, all of this was dispatched with a level of polish a step above the already high standards established in a quarter century of music-making.
Not only were string and wind tuttis confident and tightly secured, but the scoring of this Russian masterpiece provided a showcase for MYA’s distinguished principal players. To a person they were up to the task, with beautifully rendered solo passages peppering the 45 minute performance.
Rimsky-Korsakov called his sprawling work a symphonic suite, rather than a symphony, reflecting his use of loose structures rather than traditional forms such as sonata, scherzo, and rondo. His inspiration was One Thousand and One Nights, a collection of Arabic folk tales compiled over many centuries by various authors from the 8th to the 14th centuries. The original tale that frames the stories involves the ruler Shahryar and his wife Scheherazade. In this lurid and violent backstory, Shahryar learns of the infidelities of his brother’s wife as well as his own, who he kills in retribution for her unfaithfulness. Believing all women to be thus inclined, he proceeds to marry a succession of virgins only to murder them before they have a chance to stray. Finally he marries Scheherazade, who is able to survive by telling the jealous king an engrossing tale without providing an ending. He is thus compelled to show mercy so that the tale will continue to unfold.
Rimsky-Korsakov was a master of orchestral color, memorable tunes, and opulent harmonies, characteristics in full flower in the opening movement, The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship. From the stentorian opening brass outpouring and the gently ringing woodwind choir, it was clear that parents and friends in the audience were in for a treat.
More than perhaps any other grand orchestral showpiece, Scheherazade relies on a strong roster of principal players for a compelling interpretation. Primus inter pares in the parade of virtuosos is the concertmaster, who is in many ways is the expressive lifeblood of the work, with lyrical and virtuosic statements that rival some of the showiest passages in violin concertos. Liam Diethrich was more than up to the task, with a luscious and penetrating sound that set a high expressive standard in his deeply poignant opening cadenza. Diethrich also had a superb supporting cast of committed first and second violinists. Some of the most memorable moments were those that combined both violin sections for dramatic unisons that easily filled the hall even as the rest of the ensemble played full bore.
Cellist Haoming Song’s initial solo passages may have been “mere” accompaniments to the superb solos of horn player Ryan Burns, oboist Timothy Zhang, and flutist Lucy Rubin, but the eloquent arpeggios were a delight in their own right. Song soon took up melodic duties himself, trading well-turned phrases with Zhang and clarinetist Eric Butler.
Diethrich graced the opening bars of The Tale of Prince Kalendar with another soaring solo, enriched by the graceful accompaniment of harpist Lerin Peterson. Nick Nocita’s mournful bassoon solo was pure magic, and another series of solos was interrupted by a new, martial theme delivered with vigor by trombonist Katherine Koeppen and trumpet player Anubis Martinez Ruiz.
The third movement, The Young Prince and the Princess, opens and closes with one of the composer’s most tender entreaties, and Dr. Dennis coaxed a passionate tone from his massed strings, while the long, rippling arabesques of Butler and Rubin were spellbinding. The finale (Festival at Bagdad; The Sea; The Ship Goes to Pieces on a Rock) recaps many of the highlights of the previous movements, and MYAC’s superb brass and percussion sections propelled much of the forward momentum.
Rimsky-Korsakov didn’t submit a detailed program for this dazzling musical travelogue of the ancient Islamic world, but Dennis and his young forces delivered such a vivid performance that the mind couldn’t help but conjure any number of dazzling scenes. The performance was an unforgettable start to the season, and an encouraging sign of great musical adventures to come.
The Lang Lang International Music Foundation is now in its second decade of extraordinary public service, including the establishment of partnerships with organizations dedicated to instilling a drive for musical excellence in young people across the globe. None of these collaborations has been more fruitful than their partnership with Midwest Young Artists Conservatory. Each summer in August, MYAC plays host to several of these remarkable young pianist/scholars for week, making music, breaking bread, and engaging in every manner of cultural exchange. Normally there are a few holdovers from previous summers among the soloists, but this year all eight were newcomers.
Conductor Allan Dennis was at the podium Sunday afternoon once again with his MYAC Symphony Orchestra at Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park, introducing budding pianists and engaging in conversation with each before launching into selections from several canonic piano concertos. The students shared thoughts about their time in Chicago, from card-playing with fellow scholars to the enormous portions of food served up Midwest style.
Before the soloists took to the stage, Dr. Dennis led his orchestra in an ebullient account of Mozart’s Overture to The Marriage of Figaro. The statements of the snaking theme in octaves were neatly rendered by the orchestra’s superb woodwinds and strings.
It was a perfect appetizer before thoroughly compelling performances of the last two movements of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 in A Major. 13-year-old Hong Kong native Wilson Lung gave a polished and remarkably flexible reading of the Adagio, adopting a leisurely tempo that allowed him to tenderly sculpt the composer’s poignant, singing lines. Shuheng Zhang, hailing from Michigan, gave an invigorating, incisive, and note-perfect account of the finale, establishing an agreeable report with Dr. Dennis as they exchanged pleasantries in the composer’s conversational rondo.
Victor Shlyakhtenko, a 16-year-old award-winning artist from Los Angeles, already has performances at Walt Disney Concert Hall and Carnegie Hall to his credit. He gave a winning performance of the Andante of Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in G minor, spinning long melodic lines with warmth and tenderness.The finale of the concerto is unabashedly virtuosic, with fist-fulls of blistering passagework and rapid-fire octaves. It stretches credulity to imagine a 12-year-old taming this monster, but Katerina Cheung of Hong Kong did just that, delivering immaculate scales with a robust sound, all while maintaining a crystalline transparency so necessary in the composer’s scores.
Saint-Saens’ Piano Concerto No. 2 bears some kinship with the Mendelssohn piano concertos (and shares the same key as the second), with its quick, boisterous arpeggios and ample melodic charm. And like the Mendelssohn, it was written in a comparative flash, over a three week period for the occasion of Anton Rubenstein’s conducting debut in Paris. While the composer famously disliked the concerto, it has become one of his most popular works. 13-year-old Chicago native and current Juilliard Pre-College student Aliya Marie Alsafa ably demonstrated its appeal, capturing the movement’s wit and joie de vivre with apparent ease.
The final three students in the showcase each performed a movement of another popular warhorse of the repertoire, Grieg’s Concerto in A minor. It was the first piano concerto ever recorded (in 1909), and was the only concerto completed by the composer. Though written at the tender age of 24, Grieg made revisions throughout his life, the last ones coming just a few weeks before his death. Folk elements abound in its melodies, and perhaps because of the outdoor setting for this concert, these qualities seemed amplified on this occasion.
From the opening timpani roll and the cascading keyboard octaves, 16-year-old New Yorker and Juilliard Pre-College student Jeffrey Chin had the full measure of the opening movement. He coaxed a full-throated sound from the concert grand, capturing Grieg’s grand gestures in impassioned outbursts.
After tranquil and hushed opening bars from the orchestra’s muted strings in the opening bars, Carey Byron (age 14) presented a searching, warm reading of the Adagio, tracing the melancholy melodic contours with grace and sensitivity. It’s little wonder that the Los Angeles native has picked up numerous prizes, including first prize at the Los Angeles Young Musician International Competition and second prize at the American Protégé International Competition, the latter leading to her debut in Carnegie Hall.
It was up to Jasper Heymann to close out the Grieg, and he rose to the occasion with an impassioned delivery of the final Allegro moderato. From the blistering opening flourishes to the breakneck pace of the first bristling melodies, the 15-year-old New Yorker and multiple competition winner was if full command, delivering a dazzling performance that brought the audience to their feet.
Dr. Dennis chose to conclude the program the same way it began, with an engaging reading of a seminal opera overture. He lead the young ensemble in a glowing, atmospheric account of Weber’s Overture to Der Freischütz, an influential opera from 1821 that foreshadowed many characteristics of the looming Romantic style. The work is as much a tone poem as it is an overture and, as in the Grieg concerto, Dennis underlined the vivid folk references that inform much of the music. Special kudos to the horn section - their mellow, gleaming sound set the stage for an evocative performance that drew a justifiably enthusiastic response from the audience. Once again, listeners no doubt had to remind themselves repeatedly that the musicians on stage were students, not professionals, so thoroughly engrossing were the performances.
Midwest Young Artists Conservatory Winter Concert
Fresh off its remarkable 25th anniversary concert in Orchestra Hall this past December, where 300 or so current and former students celebrated in high style, the MYAC Symphony Orchestra was back to its normal routine, presenting its annual winter concert at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall in Evanston. But with appearances by two extraordinary young winners of the 2017 Walgreens Concerto Competition, there was nothing remotely routine about the affair.
The first of the two winners to take the stage was 14-year-old pianist Joshua Mhoon, the overall winner of the open senior division of the competition. The Hyde Park native has made a name for himself in short order, with an earlier win in the 2015 Walgreens Competition, a guest spot with the Chicago Sinfonietta, and appearances at the Ravinia Festival, United Center, Pritzker Pavilion, Kennedy Center, Lincoln Center, and many other notable venues in Europe.
Mhoon’s winning piece was Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto no. 2, of which he treated the audience to a riveting account of the third movement. After Dennis led the orchestra in the delicate opening bars, Mhoon ripped into the opening piano bursts with bravura and panache, traversing much of the keyboard in a flash with fluid accuracy and an assertive sound. He didn't appear to have particularly large hands, yet he seemed to have little problem spanning the composer’s notoriously wide chords. Of the Russian composer’s many famously memorable tunes, none are more beloved than the long winded melody that appears a few minutes before the end of the concerto. The pianist had the full measure of it, sculpting the theme with a maturity rarely encountered in someone of such tender years. The following section again showed remarkable prestidigitation, the bulky chordal work not only rendered accurately, but with keen attention to voicing. The final statement of the melody was beautifully drawn by Dennis and his forces, and Mhoon brought the movement home with the appropriate swagger.
Cellist Adam Lee is no stranger to Midwest Young Artist Conservatory, being a student there himself. A native of South Korea, he studies with legendary pedagogue Hans Jansen and is currently a senior at Vernon Hills High Schools. He has excelled as a chamber musician, appearing most notably in the Fischoff National Chamber Music Competition. But on this night he took center stage as soloist in the first cello concerto of Dmitri Shostakovich.
The third movement is in the unconventional form of an extended unaccompanied cadenza. One might expect impatience from a young player like Lee when unimpeded by a conductor and orchestra. But his strategically deliberate pacing worked wonders, drawing attention to a wide range of color and dynamics. Lee’s technique was masterful throughout the range of the instrument, whether sustaining a singing tone or traversing the composer’s full range of chords and double stops.
The transition into the finale steadily gained in intensity, and the opening bars were shot through with sardonic ferocity. Balance inequities are hard to tame e in this movement, but Dr. Dennis kept the textures sufficiently transparent for all voices to come through. The concluding pages were an exercise in controlled fervor, and the audience leapt to its feet at the bristling conclusion.
Like most American orchestras, Dennis chose to honor the 100th birthday of Leonard Bernstein with his most beloved short work, the overture to Candide. Like their performance in Symphony Center in December, it was a sparkling rendition, with piccolo player Meredith Golding one of the many in the woodwind section contributing some of the more memorable passages.
Woodwinds were at the forefront of the concluding work in the program, excerpts from Ravel’s ballet Daphnis et Chloe, Suite No. 2. The long crescendo in the opening movement, Lever de jour, (“daybreak”) was beautifully paced by Dennis and his forces, and the gurgling of the superb woodwinds (led by principal flutist Jonathan Wu and principal clarinetist Samuel Perlman) brought Ravel’s technicolor score to life in vivid hues.
Oboist Chloe Cardanas spun lovely lyrical phrases in Pantomime, and Wu excelled with exquisite tone color and breath control in the extended flute solo. The orchestra’s violins sounded as polished as ever in the shimmering chords and darting motivic jabs. The orchestra was joined by the fine singing of three of MYAC’s choral groups, Voices Rising, VocalPoint, and VX Ensemble, and their expressive voices soared from the rear balcony through the orchestral textures. Lower strings, and percussion, and percussion brought the luminous score to a grand finale.
(reprinted from Chicago Classical Review)
Symphony Center subscribers were no doubt crestfallen when the megastar duo of violinist Itzhak Perlman and pianist Martha Argerich cancelled their spring American tour. Even though Perlman’s best years are well behind him, the match offered intriguing intriguing possibilities for musical fireworks.
Judging by the reaction to their replacements, the audience felt they got their money’s worth with a varied program offered up by violinist and Illinois native Gil Shaham and pianist Akira Eguchi. The performances were well-executed and thoughtfully realized, and Shaham deserves credit for mixing some modern curveballs in with a healthy dose of standard repertoire.
Legendary violinist Fritz Kreisler’s Praeludium and Allegro (“In the Style of Paganini”) is meat and potatoes repertoire in violin pedagogy, but these days few big league violinists dust it off for the concert stage. It’s a beguiling work, and Shaham seemed to channel the playing of the master with the lush tone and sensuous portamentos of a by-gone era.
Kudos to the duo for thinking outside the box with the inclusion of two substantial works by contemporary American composers. The subtitles suggest the presence of musical references from Turkey and the middle east, but Scott Wheeler’s “The Singing Turk” (Sonata No. 2) from 2017 took inspiration instead from Larry Wolf’s book of the same title. The author muses on the the fascination for Turkish characters in European operas, and each movement of the sonata is based on specific personalities.
The first movement, “Su la sponda”, includes a quotation from Handel’s Tamerlano in which an imprisoned Turkish ruler sings to his daughter before committing suicide. Pointillistic gestures and single note ostinatos open the movement before neo-baroque harmonies mark the appearance of the theme.
The second draws on the 1761 opera The Three Sultanas by Paul-César Gibert in which Roxelana implores Suleiman the Magnificent to “defend yourself from becoming the slave of two beautiful eyes.” A passacaglia opens the movement, eventually sharing space with variations on Gibert’s aria.
If the first two movements meander unconvincingly, the tightly constructed perpetual motion finale (drawn from Rossini’s Il Turco in Italia) hits its mark with Eguchi and Shaham opening in muted colors before surging ahead with ever more virtuosic dialogue.
Avner Dorman’s “Nigunim” (Sonata No. 3) explicitly draws on non-Western elements, fusing material from various sacred and secular Jewish traditions with non-Jewish components from the same regions.
The most well-known reference to the nigum tradition in the violin repertoire comes from Bloch’s Baal Shem, and Dorman’s musical idiom can be heard as a modern extension of that composer’s evocations of Jewish musical traditions. The redolent opening movement unfolded with sustained drones, piquant dissonances, and impassioned outbursts from both players.
Georgian folk music was the impetus for the second movement, a scherzo of sorts, and the duo had great fun with the metric incongruities and flights of virtuosic fantasy. The muted opening of the third movement briefly suggests the listless phrase structures of Morton Feldman before submitting to more conventional lyrical impulses.
Moto perpetuo is again the preferred texture of this finale, with Shaham’s perfectly executed rapid-fire double stops and Eguchi’s disjunct chordal outbursts combining for an explosive realization. Inspired by Macedonian dances, echoes of Prokofiev and early Stravinsky pepper the score, and all of the cliches of middle eastern traditions are eagerly harvested. But for all of these references, Dorman has crafted a distinct personal style, and his idiomatic way with both instruments make for an easily accessible concert duo.
Bach’s E major Partita for solo violin was effectively dispatched by Shaham, and he mined his trademark tonal polish and effortless virtuosity to good effect in the opening prelude. But the remaining dance movements were a decidedly mixed bag, his penchant for nearly uninterrupted legato and unvaried articulations obscuring Bach’s clearly delineated architecture. He occasionally employed hushed dynamics to good effect, and his tasteful ornamentation in the Gavotte was artfully applied. But run-on sentences were the norm, lending his account an air of impatience that was exacerbated by the absence of even the smallest pauses between movements.
There is no more standard concert fare than Franck’s Sonata in A major, but Shaham and Eguchi managed to bring a freshness and vigor to the oft-trodden score. The understated opening bars in the first movement were vividly contrasted by the lyrical eruptions that followed, while the second unfolded with barely concealed fury.
There was a distinct operatic intensity to the third movement Recitativo-Fantasia, and the finale’s outpouring of sunny melodic gestures in canon lead to heroic final pages. Their partnership throughout was seamless and soulful, though there were occasions when Shaham remained in the foreground when the primary material was assigned to the piano.
“The Graceful Ghost Rag” by William Bolcom was the pleasant if mildly lethargic encore.
(reprinted from Chicago Classical Review)
While pianist David Fray is not quite the fixture in the local music scene as his more renowned father-in-law (Riccardo Muti), he as made a strong enough impression that many subsequent invitations have been proffered since his Chicago debut in 2011.
The Chicago Symphony has a more direct and long-standing relationship to the other guest artist at Thursday’s Symphony Center concert. Maestro Christoph Eschenbach was music director of the Ravinia Festival for many summers, and makes guest podium appearances with the orchestra with some regularity. Leading a slightly reduced orchestra with a few subs in principal chairs, he and Fray seemed genuinely simpatico in Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2, even if the performance waded somewhere in the gulf between the routine and the revelatory.
Fray’s adjectives of choice in interviews about the music of the Polish composer include “fragile, vaporous, perfumed, and ephemeral”, stereotypes rooted in reality but also obscuring other facets of Chopin’s art that can’t be ignored in readings of longer works like this concerto, penned at the tender age of 20.
The opening movement showed the pianist in full control of the idiom, teasing out melodic turns, employing tasteful rubato, and voicing the sometimes thick textures with a sensitive touch. But Fray underplayed more muscular passages, draining the work of the dramatic tension that more memorable accounts reveal.
The middle Adagietto of the concerto is its spiritual nucleus and raison d’être, an exquisite creation that brims with extravagantly decorated melodic charm. Fray was clearly at home in this milieu, spinning the meandering filigree with an unforced and elegant ease and gently suggesting the harmonic underpinnings with a pillowy left hand.
If the conductor/soloist partnership seemed generally sure, there were moments in the finale when pianist and ensemble didn't quite gel. Yet Fray conjured up a Polish mazurka with confident idiomatic flair, balancing the work’s inherent showmanship with a respectful nod to Chopin’s roots.
Like the concerto, Mendelssohn’s Overture to a Midsummer Night’s Dream is similarly the product of a precocious mind, composed as an introduction for a dramatic reading of Shakespeare’s play at age 17.
The quicksilver string patterings introduced here and in his string octet the year before became a hallmark of his orchestration. CSO’s upper strings had an uncharacteristically difficult time synchronizing the fleet chirps with precision, and one fiddle player even jumped the gun in a later appearance of the gesture. But balances were neatly judged and the clarinet solos of….soared with light-winged lyricism
Mendelssohn was a comparative codger at 24 when he wrote his Symphony No. 4, a work inspired by an extended Italian sojourn. He seems to have not thought much of the work himself, but Eschenbach's vivid reading made one wonder how the composer could have ever doubted himself.
The bracing opening movement was sturdy and swift, with rapid-fire woodwind pops and the famous bustling violin tune brimming with virile confidence. The Adagio is one of the composer’s most noble melodic creations, but the conductor choose a tempo too quick for contemplation, leading to an oddly stiff and mechanistic traversal.
The third movement found Eschenbach mining the score for rich inner detail, and the horn and bassoon quartet in the trio lent the section a bucolic charm. The invigorating salterello raced ahead with a blistering edge, the brute virtuosity of each of the orchestra’s sections firing at full bore.
Weber’s opera Der Freischütz may have forever changed the course of German opera, but today only its splendid overture is familiar to most listeners. Eschenbach’s account as the program opener was a highlight of the concert, brimming with atmospheric foreboding and gleaming incantations from brass and woodwinds.
The program will be repeated at Symphony Center Friday at 1:30 p.m., Saturday at 8 p.m., and Tuesday at 7:30 p.m.
(reprinted from Chicago Classical Review)
The Winter Chamber Music Festival in Evanston has justly earned kudos for curating interesting programs deftly executed by a mix of local and visiting performers. This year they scored something of a coup with the debuts of two promising young string quartets. The Dudok Kwartek Amsterdam made an impressive showing Friday in their first American appearance, and Sunday at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall at Northwestern University the Rolston String Quartet paid their first visit to the Chicago area.
The Canadian foursome seem to be following a parallel career path with the Dover Quartet. The Bienen School of Music’s Quartet-in-Residence (slated for their own appearance at the festival January 26) rose to prominence with a victory at the 2013 Banff Competition, and the Rolston Quartet nabbed the same prize in 2016. For their concerts at this festival, all three ensembles chose program openers from Mozart’s set of six quartets dedicated to Haydn, the first master of the idiom.
From the opening bars of the first movement of the A major quartet, K. 464, the ensemble demonstrated near flawless technical precision, with clean, cushioned articulations and unfailing unanimity of expression. Reading from matching iPads, they took pains to emphasize elegance and refinement above all other virtues, a strategy that mostly succeeded in the opening Allegro. Vibrato was applied judiciously, and was occasionally avoided entirely, most notably in Mozart’s mildly dissonant suspensions.
The Minuet unfolded with care lavished on the composer’s asymmetric phrase structures, and subtle rubato gently illuminated each melodic fragment. But the reading underlined elegance at the expense of other attributes, including the composer’s occasional flashes of dark humor and the dance lineage of the idiom.
First violinist Luri Lee’s sweet-toned reading of the theme of the third movement held a winning charm, but some of the following variations worked better than others. The minor key variation was wanting in dramatic intensity, and the signature “drum” variant initiated by cellist Jonathan Lo lacked percussive bite. The finale was better, the quartet’s unwavering transparency working wonders on Mozart’s ingenious counterpoint.
Tchaikovsky’s String Quartet No. 1 was similarly exacting in execution, and filled with expressive touches that reflected the young players’ intellectual engagement with the romantic warhorse. The shimmering opening chords of the first movement bloomed with an organ-like sonority, and the final accelerando worked up a bracing head of steam. A highlight was the famous second movement Andante cantabile, spun as an intimate, lyrical lullaby.
The quartet dug deep for a more extroverted Scherzo, but fell short of the kind of abandon that the best performances of the movement feature. Their aura of invincibility dimmed a bit with some shaky violin octaves in the finale, but the coda was vivid and hot-blooded.
With 12 string quartets to his credit, few Canadian composers have devoted themselves to the idiom with such consistency as R. Murray Schafer. The Rolston Quartet has little contemporary music in its repertoire to date, but they could do worse than turn their attention to the works of their esteemed compatriot.
His String Quartet No. 2 (“Waves”) from 1976 is a 17-minute sonic depiction of sea water, constructed in a succession of bars lasting between 6 and 11 seconds, the temporal distance between successive crests of waves. The language is pervasively atonal, with a heavy emphasis on brief motives that are continuously repeated and varied. There are suggestions of the string writing of Berg, Bartók, and Ligeti, but the language is very much Schafer’s own.
The young players made for ardent champions of the piece, placing the dazzling colors and modulating tempos in high relief. There was a bit of theater involved, with a spotlight on the players and dimmed lighting in the hall (inexplicably retained in the Tchaikovsky).
In the final minutes Lee, second violinist Jeffrey Dyrda and violist Hezekiah Leung slowly walked off the stage one-by-one, a la Haydn’s “Farewell” Symphony, playing motives that eventually settled back stage into a unison doldrum. The cellist was left alone, with solitary whistles intoned with mournful bowed utterances. On paper this may appear gimmicky, but the imaginative scoring and the Rolston’s committed advocacy were a winning combination.
The Winter Chamber Music Festival resumes Friday with a 7:30 performance at Pick-Staiger Hall featuring works by Tartini, Bartok, and Stravinsky.