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.