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Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2018 04:09 pm

Elysium at the auditorium

Illinois Symphony starts new season with bombast, transcendence

ISO

Photo by David Fitch

The Illinois Symphony Orchestra began its 26th season on Saturday, Oct. 20, with a lopsided program at Sangamon Auditorium. The concert, billed as a “Bicentennial Celebration” for the state of Illinois, included a salute to the female gender, followed by a somber tribute to Abraham Lincoln before concluding with a spirited performance of one of the classical canon’s most revered compositions.

First, though, ISO music director Ken Lam began the evening with an unexpected full-orchestra rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the assembled audience members receiving an able vocal assist from members of the Illinois State University Choirs, who were revealed to be hiding out in the balcony. The choirs – including members of ISU’s Concert Choir, Bell Voix and Men’s Glee – were on hand for the climactic fourth movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and helped begin the bicentennial-themed evening on an appropriately patriotic note. It prompted more than one of Saturday’s concertgoers to mutter “play ball!” at the anthem’s end.

The program proper got underway with what Lam described from the stage as the concert’s “shorter half” with a very short (about four minutes) 1987 piece by composer Joan Tower entitled “Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman,” providing an energetic opening that was over before the audience knew what hit them.

Lam explained that Tower’s fanfare was a direct answer piece to “Fanfare for the Common Man” by Aaron Copland, whose “Lincoln Portrait” was next on the bill. Sweeping and contemplative, Copland’s music evoked the Illinois plains as much as any music could, with narration, consisting of famous quotations from Lincoln, read by University of Illinois Springfield chancellor Susan Koch, whose clear and stirring delivery brought the sentiments of our state and city’s favorite son to life.


Following intermission, the audience settled in for the evening’s truly epic “longer half.” Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is a massive and intricate work, including moments of quiet beauty, violent passion and just about every tone in between. Although it is a much-performed “crowd pleaser,” there is a transcendence to the composition that remains unmatched. Lam pointed out that, for several younger members of the orchestra and choir, this was the first live performance of the symphony they had experienced. This, he implied, was a rite of passage in the life of a classical musician.

The evening’s performance of Beethoven’s 1824 masterwork was full of passion and moments of raw beauty. The first three movements moved from bombastic fireworks to pastoral contemplation to aching romanticism. When the choir members joined the fray in the fourth movement, things kicked up a notch. The “Ode to Joy” remains one of the western canon’s most beautiful melodies and Lam and the ISO tore into it with gusto, building to a frenzied climax with dozens of choristers and four soloists giving their all. By the conclusion of the composition, all seemed utterly spent and almost delirious, with Lam appearing nearly maniacal in his frenzied conducting. An extended – and well-earned – ovation followed from the appreciative audience. To paraphrase the translated words of Thomas Schiller’s poem which provides the ode with its text, any who could not appreciate such an auspicious start to a new symphony season, let them slink away in tears.

Scott Faingold can be reached at scottfaingold@gmail.com.

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