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.