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Thursday, April 11, 2019 12:26 am

Symphony “Incredibly Inspiring”

Ken Lam and Sandra Wright Shen.
Photo by David Fitch


“Forgive me if I seem a bit at sea / but you woke me from a dream of words / I was setting to music I’ll want you / to transcribe for me…” – Opening lines of “The Gate of Horn” by L.S. Asekoff

As part of its ongoing celebration of the Illinois bicentennial, the Illinois Symphony Orchestra commissioned an original work from Bloomington-Normal-based composer Carl Schimmel, with the resulting piece, “Gate of Horn, Tone Poem for Orchestra,” receiving its debut performances during the ISO’s concerts in Bloomington and Springfield on April 5 and 6. The work was inspired by the poem “The Gate of Horn” by L.S. Asekoff and both poet and composer were in attendance at the concerts. Schimmel gave a brief introductory statement and Asekoff gave a reading of his poem, which was originally published in the New Yorker in 2008. The piece provided a dense and multifaceted opening, with an especially touching closing movement, sonically echoing the poem’s lament for its narrator’s lost sight, with the sound gradually diminishing to nothing.

It was a fitting opening for an evening that otherwise contrasted the frills of Mozart with the bombast of Bruckner, with an unannounced taste of Franz Liszt sandwiched between.

California-based virtuoso pianist Sandra Wright Shen joined the orchestra for the sumptuous feast of Mozart’s “Piano Concerto No. 23,” which showcased the strengths of the ISO’s excellent musicians, weaving smoothly through the many moods of this sophisticated, later-period Mozart piece, which was written only five years before his death. According to the program notes, it was played mainly at private gatherings, was not published until after the composer’s death and was also one of the first major compositions to incorporate the then-recently (1786) invented clarinet.

While Shen’s masterful musicianship shone throughout the performance of the Mozart concerto, it was during her solo encore that she revealed herself as a force to reckon with. She explained that the title of the evening’s program, “Incredibly Inspiring,” had reminded her of an anecdote about Hungarian composer and pianist Franz Liszt (1811-1886), who, following his father’s death, found himself shaken from the doldrums of grief after attending a performance by violin master Nicolò Paganini. Liszt was inspired to transcribe some of Paganini’s violin parts for piano, and Shen treated Saturday’s audience to a fiery, passionate and precise rendition (apparently from memory) of one of these études, leaving spectators and orchestra alike wide-eyed in admiration of her unbridled skill and intensity.

After such a singular performance, it might have been inevitable that the orchestra’s spirited rendition of Bruckner’s “Symphony No. 2” seemed anticlimactic. Still, the performance of Bruckner burst with energy. Music director Ken Lam pointing out that this particular piece afforded both the brass and bass sections numerous opportunities to take the spotlight.

The evening was both cohesive and wide-ranging, a fitting penultimate addition to the ISO’s excellent 2018-2019 season, which will have its finale the first weekend in May with a program entitled “Nature’s Beauty,” featuring guest violinist Rachel Barton Pine.

Longtime IT contributor Scott Faingold is director of student media at University of Illinois Springfield, co-founder and editor-in-chief of the magazine Activator and lead vocalist for post-punk band Epsom. He can be reached at scottfaingold@gmail.com.


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