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Thursday, Oct. 9, 2014 12:01 am

Indian percussion + Beethoven’s Third = ISO season premier

ISO guest soloist Sandeep Das performs with Yo-Yo Ma (right).


This Saturday, Oct. 11, marks the premier of the 2014-2015 season of the Illinois Symphony and Chamber Orchestras, the third under the auspices of music director Alastair Willis. The enthusiastic and charismatic maestro has spent the past two years forging a path balanced between accessible favorites and ambitious innovation.

This Saturday’s concert, “Beethoven Meets the Silk Road,” is a perfect example of this approach. The evening will begin with a performance of Beethoven’s Third Symphony, the Eroica, one of the most revered compositions in the canon, while the second half of the concert will be devoted to an exploration of the tabla, the Indian percussion instrument, as performed by virtuoso Sandeep Das, of Yo-yo Ma’s famed Silk Road Ensemble.

These elements are not as far apart as one might think. As Willis is quick to point out, Beethoven’s Third was positively avant-garde for its time. “That was Beethoven blowing everything aside and going off on his own where no composer had ever trod before,” he says. “We take for granted so many things in that symphony which are normal now but when it came out, it was another story.” The maestro goes on to cite such elements as the extreme length of the Eroica’s first movement, the fact of the first melody coming from the celli rather than strings, the horn part arriving at the recapitulation having been deliberately written in the wrong key, and the very first instance of the scherzo being used in place of the minuet as examples of choices which were groundbreaking in Beethoven’s time but which seem commonplace now.

The second half of Saturday’s program, however, can be considered groundbreaking by 21st century standards. As Willis put it succinctly, “How many tabla concertos are there?” At this point, apparently only one, composed by Dinuk Wijeratne, also of the Silk Road Ensemble. “Tabla Concerto” will be performed by the orchestra with Das on Saturday along with “Ascending Bird” by Colin Jacobsen. Willis assures us we are in for a treat. “Sandeep Das is one of the most incredible musicians I’ve ever met and he doesn’t read a note of music,” he says. The tabla consists of two tuned drums which are played sitting down and using every part of the musician’s hand: all 10 fingers, both palms, even the forearm. It is a musical tradition which is taught orally – nothing is written down. “Sandeep has one of the most incredible memories I’ve ever come across,” says Willis with obvious awe.

Das is the latest in a series of exciting guest soloists from the Silk Road Ensemble brought in by Willis, who is uniquely placed, having worked as a conductor for the prestigious international group in the past, an experience which he says can be both nerve-racking and exhilarating.

The season ahead promises a “wild and wacky” chamber orchestra concert of H.K. Gruber’s “Frankenstein” later this month, a circus-themed edition of “Holiday Pops in the Heartland,” and two guest conductors (including ISO O.G. Kenneth Kiesler), climaxing in May with “The Lincoln Train,” set to coincide with the 16th president’s funeral commemoration. “I have always loved music and my life is dedicated to it,” says Maestro Willis. “We can’t wait to share what we have with the Illinois audiences.”

“Beethoven Meets the Silk Road” takes place at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 11 at Sangamon Auditorium, University of Illinois Springfield. For tickets visit http://www.ilsymphony.org/ticket-info.html or call 206-6160.  

Contact Scott Faingold at sfaingold@illinoistimes.com


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