Midwest Young Artists Conservatory Symphony Orchestra
Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, Evanston
Dr. Allan Dennis, conductor
Lyudmila Lakisova, piano
Irina Lupines, piano
The final spring concert in the Midwest Young Artist Conservatory’s Symphony Orchestra schedule is always an emotional affair, with tearful farewells from director Allan Dennis to graduating seniors who are preparing to leave their nests in a few shorts months to pursue higher education. The goodbyes add an extra layer of emotion to the events, and the performances themselves tend to unfold with a heightened level of intensity. Sunday’s concert at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall in Evanston was no exception to this pattern, and with a particularly demanding program that required extra rehearsals and a deeper level of commitment, there was even more on the line than usual.
The technical and musical complexities (not to mention endurance) of Mahler symphonies might make them seem a fool’s errand for youth orchestras. an assumption particularly apt for the Fifth Symphony, a work of almost unparalleled complexity in the symphonic canon. The composer explores any number of opposing dramatic forces: unbearable tragedy and soothing bliss, passive desperation and frenzied mania, agonizing torment and serene contentment. Just getting the notes and rhythms in place is a herculean task, but navigating the emotional terrain of this behemoth with convincing authenticity is an even more daunting burden. But Dr. Dennis and his young musicians proved up to the task, delivering a compelling and often urgent reading that had proud parents and friends at the edge of their seats for the symphony’s hour-plus duration.
Mahler completed his Fifth Symphony in 1902, and it received its first public performance under the composers direction in Cologne in 1904. His three previous efforts included vocal forces, but here and in the next two symphonies the composer returned to the more traditional purely instrumental form. And yet there is little else conventional about this monumental work, a mammoth creation in three parts further subdivided into five movements.
The first movement unfolds in the form of a funeral march, with a lone trumpet call derived from a climax in his Fourth Symphony. The principal trumpet part is among the most taxing in the repertoire, but Hannah Nussbaum and Emily Rebstock, splitting the part between them, were up to the arduous task. The first lyrical theme was beautifully shaped by the strings, and the low brass added the requisite somber touch. Tuba player Lily Sefchick in particular played her mournful passages with precision and projection. In the burst of anguish that marks the defiant trio, Dennis coaxed a tormented outburst from his young forces, capped off with a ringing chorus from his splendid horn section.
Built on material from the crazed first trio from the funeral march, the second movement erupted with an appropriately angry outburst from the outstanding lower strings. The cello section gave a lush reading of a new lyrical theme, leading to the reappearance of the gruff opening measures. One of the highlights of the symphony is the magnificent brass choral near the end, and Dennis’ forces gave a spine-tingling rendering. The sense of triumph in the score is short-lived however, and Dennis brought the movement back down to earth with a precisely calculated deflation.
The third movement begins innocently enough, with a rollicking horn tune (neatly played by the MYA section), but Mahler correctly foresaw that it would cause interpretive problems for orchestras of the future (“The scherzo is the very devil of a movement”, he declared). Whatever the complexities and unexpected twists and turns (and they are many), it is ultimately an effervescent dance of life, and the orchestra brought a sense of ebullience to the the score that perhaps only young players can muster. Principal horn player Chris Martin handled his prominent part with consummate professionalism.
The celebrated fourth movement Adagietto for strings and harp remains the symphony’s best known movement (and perhaps most famous in all of Mahler’s oevre, thanks to it’s inclusion in director Luchino Visconti’s “Death in Venice” and as the inspiration for numerous ballets). It is also the subject of arguably the most controversial tempo debate in all of classical music. Some conductors have interpreted the piece as a melancholy elegy, a role boosted by its use in many musical memorial events. Yet the composer was quite clear that the movement was inspired by his burgeoning love for Alma Schindler, who was to become his wife shortly after the symphony’s completion. Dr. Dennis rightly viewed the movement as a love song, teasing out the central lyrical core and drawing sumptuous playing from his string sections. Harpist Krista Hagglund added an atmospheric haze to the unfolding love song.
The cheery, rustic opening of the finale was marked by superb solo work from Martin, clarinetist Alex Abreu and oboe player Gwen Goodman. The string fugue was a marvelous bustle of activity, sprightly paced and crisp in execution. The same glorious brass chorus that dissolved into defeat in the third movement ended here in grand, heroic victory. “Heroic” is also the best adjective to describe the herculean effort than brought this performance, and the entire MYA season, to such a glorious close.
MYA’s Symphony Orchestra doesn’t often feature guest artists, but those occasions tend to be memorable ones. Bruch’s Concerto for Two Pianos in A flat minor, Op. 88a, is hardly a staple, but Sunday’s performance by Lyudmila Lakisova and Irina Lupines made a case for the occasional hearing. The key of A flat minor is odd, to say the least, and the back story of it’s origins are strangely convoluted. It was conceived for the American piano duo Rose and Ottilie Sutro, yet the two never performed Bruch’s original score. They did manage just two performances of heavily revised versions with the New York Philharmonic and Philadelphia Orchestra, one of which reduced the original from four movements to three. The concerto lay undisturbed among the sisters’ papers until 1971, at which point the score was rediscovered and received a belated premier in 1973.
Lakisova (esteemed local pianist and chamber music coach at MYA) and Lupines (famed collaborative pianist and instructor at the Eastman School of Music) gave a performance that was utterly compelling and singular idiomatic, not an easy feat given the uneven quality of the work itself. Bruch borrowed from many sources for the composition, original and external, and the concerto doesn’t hold together nearly as well as other double piano concertos. But the duo managed to convey enough dramatic angst, urgency, and lithe lyricism to keep the audience in their grasp.