The Walgreens National Concerto Competition is more than just one of the leading events that bring together many of the most talented young musicians from around the globe. Since it is administered by the Midwest Young Artists Conservatory, it provides a steady pipeline of top-flight soloists for MYAC’s Symphony Orchestra and conductor Allan Dennis.
One could hardly have chosen two more disparate concertos to highlight the extraordinary talents of the competition winners in a concert at Pick-Stagier Concert Hall in Evanston. Violinist and MYAC’s Senior Division winner Ella Saputra took to the stage for the first movement of one of the most difficult works in the repertoire, Paganini’s Concerto No. 1 in D major. The Conant High School freshman exhibited remarkably nimble and fluid technique, vanquishing the rapid arpeggios and double stops with ease. But unlike some precocious performers in this repertoire, Fredrickson also took the full measure of Paganini’s lyrical impulses, drawing shapely legato lines with a full bodied tonal sheen.
As one of the finest violin concertos of the 20th century, it is a shame that Bartok’s Concerto No. 2 doesn’t appear on concert programs nearly as often as it deserves. A native of Vernon Hills and student at the Juilliard School, Masha Lakisova gave a gripping account of the first movement, exhibiting a level of maturity quite astounding for a musician of her age. This concerto requires an assortment of skills that test even seasoned professionals, but Lakisova delivered the goods, from the piercing intensity of Bartok’s angular, disjunct lines, to the soaring lyricism of the composer’s under appreciated melodic gifts. His unremitting chromaticism can be a challenge for performer and listener alike, but her ability to communicate the intensity of this exhilarating score was a marvel from beginning to end.
Dr. Dennis doesn’t pull any punches in his choices of orchestral repertoire, and he routinely challenges his students with some of the most difficult works in the standard repertoire. Strauss' tone poems are among the most formidable of the lot, and the orchestra’s gripping account of Death and Transfiguration once again demonstrated the ability of MYAC’s flagship orchestra to handily surmount any obstacle.
The composer was only 25 when he penned his most ambitious piece to date, a musical exploration of the mysteries of death (and speculation about what might lie beyond), through the fictional depiction of the final hours of a fictional character. The orchestra subtly depicted the irregular breathing and heartbeat of the frail man, setting up his dreams of happier times in the form of delicately turned solos by oboist Timothy Zhang, flutist Christine Lee, and concertmaster John Lee. These memories are interrupted by agonizing outbursts of pain, rendered here in full bodied exclamations from Dennis’ outstanding lower strings. But sleep intervenes once more, and memories of youthful love return, marked by more achingly beautiful woodwind solos and soaring lyrical outbursts from the superb violin section.
Finally the first, abbreviated appearance of the Transfiguration theme appears, played with gleaming brilliance by the brass. The ebbs and flows of his journey toward acceptance of death and the final, full flowering of his Transfiguration were expertly paced by Dennis and the brass principals (William Lewis,tumpet; Ryan Burns, horn; Katherine Koeppen, trombone; and Mason Goldbaum, tuba) were reliably resplendent in every pace and dynamic.
The medium of the tone poem took hold in other European capitals in the late 19th century besides Vienna. Bedrich Smetana’s Má Vlask is a set of six such works that celebrate his Czech homeland in general, and Prague in particular. The Moldau may be just one of countless depictions of natural bodies of water in Western music, but none describe the flow of water in rivers as vividly.
This version was leisurely paced, enabling the audience to hear Smetana’s imaginative orchestration in clear detail. The orchestra’s woodwinds were particular characterful, and the strings brought a light, idiomatic touch to the folk-tinged dances of the local feasts along the river. There was an air of celebration in the music, as there was throughout another resplendent concert from Dennis and his MYAC Symphony Orchestra.