Illinois Philharmonic opens season in exhilarating form with strings attached

October 19, 2020
Stilian Kirov conducted the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra in string music of Tchaikovsky and George Walker Saturday night in Palos Heights. Photo: Ned Rissky

All of us who are waiting impatiently for the return of live symphonic concerts—audiences, musicians, critics and administrators— received bad news last Thursday with the announcement that the Chicago Symphony Orchestra has cancelled its concerts through next April. The following day the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic canceled the rest of their seasons completely.

In light of the resurgence of Covid-19 cases—which are at an apex in Illinois right now—it’s hard to argue with the need for continued vigilance and keeping the state ban on large gatherings intact.

Still, it is heartening to see large music organizations locally and across the country find ways to continue to bring classical music to audiences. For most, that means streaming performances online. But some organizations are finding creative ways to perform live to audiences in addition to streaming. 

The Dallas Symphony Orchestra and Utah Symphony opened their seasons on time with downsized programs—musicians, conductors and smaller-capacity audience members masked and socially distanced. At a time when live opera is virtually nonexistent, Utah Opera is bucking the trend. The resourceful Salt Lake City company cleverly retooled their scheduled season opener from Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman into a safer, more intimate double bill featuring Poulenc’s La voix humaine.

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Classical music in Chicago this Covid-19 autumn has largely meant online streaming with just a few scattered chamber and instrumental events inviting small audiences.

The Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra, for one, is taking a more proactive approach to the present challenges. The IPO has not cancelled its 2020-21 season and currently plans to record its concerts and make them available for streaming online.

The orchestra opened its 43rd season, “IPO Reimagined,” in downsized form Saturday night in Palos Heights with a short program for strings. The event was not open to the public and the stream will be broadcast October 24.

Under music director Stilian Kirov, the southwest suburban ensemble continues to grow and impress. Last March, the IPO was named 2020 Professional Orchestra of the Year by the Illinois Council of Orchestras—news that got lost amid the burgeoning pandemic crisis.

Photo: Ned Rissky

At the first of two performances of its 45-minute program Saturday night at Trinity Christian College, current protocols were observed. Kirov and the 29 string musicians were masked and socially distanced, a single player to each stand. With just a handful of invited (and masked) guests in the hall, the IPO artfully managed to keep the total number of people in attendance under the requisite 50.

The evening began with George Walker’s Lyric for Strings. The African-American composer died in 2018 at the age of 96, yet this early work—written at age 24— continues to be his most performed work.

Walker’s Lyric wears a clear debt to Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, yet under Kirov’s direction the IPO musicians made a most compelling case for this elegiac work. From the hushed opening measures. Kirov led a spacious yet flowing performance that conveyed the sobriety as well as the comforting expression.

Just as one began to think that the widely distanced players offered more transparency than fullness of string tone, that impression was immediately dispelled with their full-bodied sonority in the opening bars of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings in C major.

One slight upside of the pandemic is that the wonderful string serenades of Dvořák and Tchaikovsky are getting the higher profile they deserve now that the composers’ symphonies are problematic to present. As demonstrated on previous occasions, the Illinois Philharmonic boasts an exceptionally rich string section for a regional ensemble, one especially well suited to Russian music, as was shown in their Tchaikovsky Saturday night.

While it doesn’t offer the dark drama and intensity of his symphonies, the Serenade for Strings is among Tchaikovsky’s finest works— richly melodic, deftly contrasted and frequently dazzling in the confidence and panache of its string writing.

The slow introduction had ample weight as well as transparency in the empty confines of Ozinga Chapel and the players brought fine flexibility and tonal luster to the opening movement. Kirov took the main theme at a statelier tempo than one often hears these days but one that is arguably more in line with the Allegro moderato marking. The ensuing waltz movement went with admirable lilt and charm.

The Elegie brings the deepest expression of this mostly light-hearted work. Kirov and the players drew out the introspective essence of this music with great sensitivity and subtly shaded dynamics; the intimate reprise of the opening bars at the hushed coda was gorgeous.

In the finale, Kirov handled the tricky segue from the pensive introduction into the vital main theme with fine aplomb. The extra clarity made the fizzing finale exhilarating with the fast alternation of bowed and pizzicato passages and the principal theme flying from one section to another.

Perhaps the circumstances inevitably had something to do with one’s reaction—i.e., not hearing live orchestral music for seven months. But I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed Tchaikovsky’s Serenade more than in this Illinois Philharmonic performance.

The performance will be streamed 7 p.m. October 24 via YouTubeFacebook, or Palos Channel 4. ipomusic.org


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