Sunday at Pick-Stagier Concert Hall in Evanston, Midwest Young Artists Conservatory’s fall concerts were dubbed “Fantastique”, a reference to the sole work performed by the Symphony Orchestra under Dr. Allan Dennis, and an apt description of the remarkably high quality of the musical offerings on display by all of the superb ensembles of young musicians.
The evening program began with a varied and bracing set of tunes from the MYAC Big Band. With director Drew Hansen taking a break from his duties for his nuptials the previous day, it fell to Alex Blomarz to lead the combo through four numbers that highlighted the seamless ensemble work and imaginative solo capabilities of its members.
Steve Slagle’s arrangement of Charles Mingus’ Fables of Faubus began with low, bluesy growls from the trombones and tenor saxophones, while drummer Eli Goroff-Behel took the group in and out of double time. Riichiro Fujiko was the imaginative trombone soloist, pianist Sebastian Ingrino peppered the texture with thick chords, and the fine bassist Evan Dietrich began his terrific solo turn with an immediate leap to the upper register.
Blomarz went for a laid back, deeply swinging tempo for Bennie Moten’s Moten Swing (arranged by Sammy Nestico). The wide dynamic range was a big selling point in its irresistible appeal, as were the solos by tenor sax player Nikhil Devauptapu and trumpet player Asher Baron. The highlights of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s Such Sweet Thunder were the funky plunger mutes in the trumpet section as well as the inspired solos from trombone player Stephen Paul and alto sax player Takeru Satoh.
In what is surely the most surprising work I’ve ever heard programmed by a jazz ensemble, the band then performed their own arrangement of the third movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 in D Major (Feierlich und gemessen, ohne zu schleppen). This movement is based on a minor key transformation of a European folk song known most popularly as Frére Jacques. From the opening bars, their version came across not so much as an arrangement as it did a complete transformation, bending it to the particular strengths of the jazz idiom and varying in mood from whimsically playful to earnestly solemn. They played on the tunes’ major/minor duality with relish, and distant echoes of klezmer seemed to waft through the texture from time to time during faster tempos. Soloists Timmy Wilcox (trombone) and John Pinns (baritone saxophone) provided impish solos in this unusual context, and a loose, sustained cadenza with group improvisation was one of many high points.
There are few works in the orchestral canon that changed the course of musical history more definitively than Hector Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique. Never before had a grand symphony been written that had so explicitly been based on a program, let alone from a country with so little symphonic tradition, and conductor Allan Dennis helped the audience navigate the story line with thumbnail summaries of the composer’s fevered imagination. But it was up to Dr. Dennis’ firm hand at the podium and the students’ full-blooded commitment that really brought the sprawling score to life.
The opening of the first movement (Réveries, Passions) was deceptively innocent, with shimmering lines from the upper strings and woodwinds, eventually giving way to quicker passages from the splendid violins and dark, brooding utterances from the low strings. Ryan Burns played a haunting French horn solo, and flutist Christine Lee floated effortlessly above the lustrous woodwinds in tutti sections. Dennis drew a beautifully hushed sonority from the strings and woodwinds in the final prayerful section.
The second movement (Un bal) takes the form of a dreamy waltz, and after an ominous introduction from the harps and lower strings, the violins spun the principal tune, after which oboist Brendan Hogan expressively intoned the idée fixe. After a delightful clarinet solo form Eric Butler, Dennis lead the orchestra through a hard charging accelerando to the final rambunctious bars.
The third movement (Scéne aux champs) began with a conversation in the country between two shepherds, depicted by the English horn and oboe (intoned plaintively by Hogan and Timothy Zhang). There were many long dynamic gradations that were expertly gauged by Dennis and his players. The rumbling of the timpani and the increasingly distressed shepherd’s calls lead the listeners directly into the fourth movement, Marche au supplice.
The horns and low brass set the stage for the impending execution, and Bailey Holman navigated the solo bassoon lines with amusing agility. The trumpet section was at their stentorian best as they kept the propulsive march moving inexorably forward. Nearly every section and soloist had a chance in the spotlight in the ghoulish finale Songe d’une nuit du sabbat (Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath), including nearly every instrument in the orchestra’s dextrous percussion section. The famous Dies Irae (Days of Wrath) plainchant melody was heard to chilling effect by tuba player Mason Goldbaum. Dr. Dennis brought out the movement’s sound effects with care and clarity (the bone clacking skeletons of the string sections’ col lego in particular), and the audience of parents and students responded with justifiable enthusiasm.
And so the MYAC was off and running with another season of Fantastique musical pleasures.