MYA - Walgreens Competition
February 28, 2016
Pick-Staiger Concert Hall
The Midwest Young Artists Conservatory Symphony Orchestra gives several splendid concerts each year, showcasing the cream of the crop of Chicago area young instrumentalists. For many, including this listener, the most highly anticipated of these performances is the winter concert that features the annual winners of the Walgreens Concerto Competition. In addition to thrilling concerto performances by two brilliant young artists, Dr. Allan Dennis presented compelling performances of two orchestra standards at opposite ends of the tempo spectrums.
The overall winner of the Open Division of the competition was 16-year-old violinist Zachary Brandon, using as his vehicle arguably the most challenging movement in concerto literature, the finale of Sibelius’ Violin Concerto, amusingly dubbed “a polonaise for polar bears” by Sir Donald Tovey. From the restless, edgy opening in the instrument’s lower register, to the angular dotted rhythms that send the instrument soaring into the highest realms, Brandon kept the audience on the edge of their seats with a performance of unflagging energy and youthful dynamism. Of Brandon’s numerous musical attributes, most impressive was his steely sound that projected easily over the orchestra to the farthest seats in the hall.
Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 is an equally stern test, even for seasoned professionals. In the concert’s sprawling first movement, 15-year-old Kimie Han, winner of the MYA Division, seemed unfazed by any of these difficulties, either digitally or musically. She dug into the swift scaler passages with ease, and held nothing back during the composer’s wryly dissonant outbursts and blistering scalar passages. Her feisty reading combined equal measures of vigor and polish, and she tended to the movements’ odd lyrical moments with a delicate touch.
Richard Strauss once wrote that he could only compose when confronted with some kind of dramatic or literary inspiration, and he harnessed this ability to depict character and incident through music to bring the musical form “tone poem” to life. Franz Liszt’s tone poems may have had vague extramusical associations, but Strauss’ creations captured the visual world with much greater specificity. (He once boasted that he could depict a glass of beer in musical form!). He is generally not considered a radical composer from today’s viewpoint, but when the 21-year-old decided to pay a musical tribute to a certain famous lady’s man after seeing Nikolaus Lenau’s Don Juans Ende in 1885, his imagination was fired to white hot intensity. His tone poem Don Juan debuted in 1888 to a rapturous reception, paving the way for several more tone poems and 17 operas. The orchestration places unprecedented demands on musicians, and to this day is the source for many of the most feared passages in orchestra auditions.
Such challenges might be assumed to put the piece out of range for teenage musicians, but the orchestra pulled off a performance that was as riveting as many a professional ensemble. The opening cascades of 16th notes are meant to convey a “tempest of excitement” (in the composer’s words), and Dennis and company threw themselves into the bustle with infectious brio. Once the hyper-activity subsided, the spotlight shifted to a series of nicely turned solos and section work. Concertmaster Robert Sanders’ solo passages were spun beautifully, while oboist Lucy Chavez brought a lovely touch to Strauss’ extended cantilena, a representation of the protagonist’s second conquest. Special kudos to the horn section, whose massively powered call perfectly captured Don Juan’s impatience as he rushes off on another amorous adventure.
If Strauss left little doubt as to the inspiration behind his tone poems, Barber’s Adagio for string orchestra is a shape-shifting marvel. It has been appropriated by an endless parade of film directors and pop artists, from “Platoon” and “Elephant Man” to studio producer William Orbit and rapper Sean Combs. Some conductors try to wring every drop of pathos from the score with lethargic tempos, but Dr. Dennis’ more reasonable pace kept the structure in tight focus. The students responded with a warm, moving performance that left their proud families clearly moved.