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Thursday, Jan. 31, 2019 12:08 am

Cold and classical

Illinois Symphony Orchestra goes Scandinavian

Guest soloist John Bruce Yeh of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra performing Carl Nielsen’s 1928 “Clarinet Concerto."
Photo by David Fitch


The frigid trudge of determined music lovers from the sleet-covered parking lot to Sangamon Auditorium lent verisimilitude to this past Saturday’s “Nordic Nights” concert by the Illinois Symphony Orchestra. Featuring works by major composers from Finland, Denmark and Norway, the evening’s program managed to be energetic, challenging and good fun.

The evening got underway with the familiar opening strains of “Peer Gynt Suite (Op. 46)” by Edvard Grieg, originally composed in 1867 to accompany a play by Henrik Ibsen. The lazily pastoral “Morning Mood” movement and the climactic, bombastic “In the Hall of the Mountain King” have often been used as soundtracks for films and cartoons – the latter, with its protopunk percussion and maddening repetitions, has often found itself covered or quoted by modern musical acts from classic rockers The Who to K-pop progenitors SF-9. The ISO’s rendition of “Gynt” set the concert in motion with a vengeance, “Mountain King” threatening to raise the already high roof of the auditorium.

Musical director Ken Lam next introduced guest soloist John Bruce Yeh of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, who took center stage for Carl Nielsen’s 1928 “Clarinet Concerto.” Yeh’s commanding stage presence and aggressive style suited the dazzlingly modern piece, taking the audience on a varied sonic journey, from beautiful melodic passages to shrieking licorice-stick tirades that might not have sounded out of place on a Gunther Schuller “third stream” piece.

Sibelius’ frequently revised fifth symphony (finalized by the composer in 1919) made up the second half of the program. A mesmerizing and elliptical first movement (aptly described by Maestro Lam, during a brief spoken introduction, in terms of musical puzzle pieces) eventually led to an almost literally soaring final movement, inspired by an incident wherein Sibelius witnessed the upward flight of a wedge of 16 swans. Thus ended a night of intense and varied music, well played.  Showing an admirable versatility, the orchestra’s next concert, scheduled for  Feb. 19, will take the form of a special family concert of music from Disney films, both classic and modern, complete with clips and images from films from Mary Poppins  to Frozen.  

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


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