Beethoven and Brahms take the spotlight

Illinois Symphony earns standing ovations

click to enlarge Beethoven and Brahms take the spotlight
Ludwig van Beethoven performed the Piano Concerto No. 4 in 1808, his last public performance as a soloist.

Maestro Vince Lee stepped ably into the role of guest conductor for the Illinois Symphony Orchestra last Friday, Nov. 18, with an enjoyable and occasionally galvanizing concert at the UIS Performing Arts Center. Former ISO music director Ken Lam has departed for a position at the Juilliard School in China. Lee currently wields the baton full-time for the Ocean City Pops in New Jersey and began conducting professionally at age 13.

The mood of the evening was established immediately with a spirited version of Jacques Ibert's Hommage à Mozart, first presented in 1956 to honor the 200th anniversary of the great composer's birth. The five-minute rondo provided what felt like a great warm-up for the musicians of the ISO as well as an engaging blast of energy for the audience, with the intricacies of Ibert's gallic-tinged evocations of the frothy style of the Austrian master speeding by almost before they could fully register.

This set the stage for the arrival of renowned guest pianist Zee Zee (Zhang Zhuo) whose delicate yet forceful presence and jaw-dropping virtuosity drove Ludwig van Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major to dizzying heights. (The piece had its premiere in 1808 and was Beethoven's final public performance as a soloist.) It was a delight to watch Maestro Lee maintain the balance between Zee Zee's almost overwhelmingly beautiful playing with the stringent demands of the composition, making this an ideal showcase for soloist, orchestra and conductor alike, eventually bringing the audience to its feet for an extended ovation.

After intermission, the evening reached its climax with a sublime rendition of Symphony No. 1 in C Minor by Johannes Brahms. By the time this symphony was first performed in 1876, Brahms had delayed debuting the work for years in fear of disappointing expectations set up by praise heaped by Robert Schumann upon the young, then-unproven composer. No such hesitation was evident in the orchestra's performance Friday, which progressed confidently through the several moods of the symphony's movements, ranging from brooding to forceful to transcendent, earning another standing ovation.

On the horizon, December promises to be a busy month for the ISO, with the second appearance this season by conductor Rei Hatoda, who will lead an evening of Mozart on Dec. 2, followed by the always highly anticipated Holiday Pops in the Heartland concert on Dec. 16, which will include a variety of seasonally appropriate music, ranging from Handel's Messiah to Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker to the score from Home Alone by John Williams. There will be a search for the ISO's new permanent music director during the 2023-2024 season.

Scott Faingold is Director of Student Media at University of Illinois Springfield as well as co-founder and editor-in-chief of Activator Magazine. He can be reached via scottfaingold@gmail.com.

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