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Thursday, Nov. 2, 2017 12:05 am

Symphony season starts in style

Illinois Symphony Orchestra music director Ken Lam.
PHOTO courtesy of ken lam

 

Saturday evening marked the start of the Illinois Symphony Orchestra’s 25th anniversary season, as well as the debut of new ISO music director Ken Lam. The season kicked off with a varied program, beginning with a short piece by an area composer and climaxing with a spirited Tchaikovsky symphony.

Mark Rheaume, whose composition, “Entrance Fanfare,” received its debut performance on Friday, is the music librarian for the ISO as well as a music instructor at University of Illinois Springfield and Illinois College. His short piece did its job, providing a jolt of energy at the top of the night, with layers of sound and melody weaving in and out of a forceful central theme, an enjoyable performance which ended before it could fully register.

Moving compositionally from contemporary central Illinois straight to 19th-century Prague, the orchestra next played the overture from Smetana’s opera “The Bartered Bride” – an extremely upbeat piece that saw the always energetic Lam at his most frenetic, seeming to dance at times as he turned to conduct each section of the orchestra. I could be mistaken, but I thought I saw him actually take a small leap into the air at one point.

One of the ongoing challenges a musical director for a symphony orchestra like ISO faces is to balance the programs between artistic edification and crowd-pleasing. The remainder of Friday’s concert hinted at the sort of approach we might expect from Lam.

On the artistic edification side of the equation, the first half of the concert ended with “Piano Concerto No. 3” by often-challenging 20th-century composer Bela Bartok, which featured guest pianist Ran Dank. Lam took a moment to speak to the audience before beginning the piece, explaining the context in which it was conceived. Written during a terminal illness near the end of the composer’s life, the concerto is quieter and more reflective than much of Bartok’s work. Lam alerted listeners to notice the prayer-like aspects of the second movement and the composer’s transcription of actual birdsong in the third – potentially making a complex, somewhat dissonant, piece more palatable to an audience trained to the familiar and the conventionally harmonious. Dank’s intensely physical, virtuosic presence at the piano did even more to sell the piece than Lam’s intro, ringing out Bartok’s sometimes broken-sounding, clustered groups of chords to which the orchestra would harmonize, Bartok’s unique composition repeatedly providing a tonic for the seemingly atonal. It was a thrilling performance and an admirably nervy choice for inclusion in a debut concert.

On the other end of things, classical music doesn’t get any more crowd-pleasing than Tchaikovsky. Friday’s performance of the Russian icon’s “Symphony No. Five, Op. 64 in E minor” was by turns bombastic and melodic, sweepingly romantic and oddly ominous. The evening ended with a standing ovation from the crowd of 900 or so music lovers.

Scott Faingold can be reached at sfaingold@illinoistimes.com

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