Tarantula attacks, Hades and Napoleon's old violin

All in a night's work for the Illinois Symphony Orchestra

click to enlarge Sayaka Shoji performs with the Illinois Symphony Orchestra. - CREDIT: ILLINOIS SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
Credit: Illinois symphony Orchestra
Sayaka Shoji performs with the Illinois Symphony Orchestra.

The Illinois Symphony Orchestra took to the Sangamon Auditorium stage on Saturday, Jan. 29, for "Incredibly Italian," its first concert of 2022.

The evening's exciting and energetic program featured works by three notably non-Italian master composers – Mendelssohn, Schumann and Mozart – with the theme instead reflected in the content of Mozart's "Don Giovanni" and Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 4 in A Major, Op. 90, "Italian," which was composed by the German-Jewish maestro during an 1830 stay in The Boot.

Guest violinist Sayaka Shoji is a prominent soloist on the international scene and a former prodigy, having won the prestigious Paganini Competition at the age of 15. Her forceful and emotionally stirring performance of Schumann's Violin Concerto in D Minor this weekend would have been plenty to inspire the ISO's audience, even without a pair of intriguing back stories offered by the orchestra's conductor and musical director, Ken Lam, during introductory remarks.

Lam explained that the violin concerto has been performed rarely, compared to Schumann's other works, as it remained unpublished and hidden for nearly a century. Written not long before mental illness drove Schumann into the asylum where he would pass away in 1856, the concerto followed a convoluted anecdotal and legal path to eventual public performance, including alleged instructions received directly from Schumann's spirit by his musician grandniece during a 1930s séance.

The piece has since been embraced by contemporary violinists, including Shoji, who personally requested to perform the concerto during her visit to Illinois. The audience, whether in person or at home watching the ISO's first ever fully livestreamed concert for ticketholders – was treated to a breathtaking interpretation of the work, resulting in an extended ovation and an unaccompanied encore which showcased the virtuoso's playful and astonishingly forceful "hammer on" fingering technique, seamlessly integrated with delicate bowing. Adding yet another layer of fascination, the Stradivarius played so beautifully and aggressively by Shoji was reportedly once owned by none other than Napoleon Bonaparte.

Previous to the delight of Schumann a la Shoji, the concert had gotten underway with the Overture from Mozart's opera "Don Giovanni," which, Lam explained, makes a musically and thematically appropriate companion to Schumann's almost-lost work. This is due to the dark emotionality of the two pieces, their matching dark key (both are in D minor) and identical opening notes. Thematically, the Mozart opera depicts its antihero's descent into Hell, and Schumann's work has been interpreted as a musical representation of the composer's fight against insoluble mental and emotional agonies.

The second half of the program proved much lighter, with a spirited rendition of Mendelssohn's irrepressibly jubilant and celebratory "Italian" symphony. Jam-packed with joyful melodies – many of which would likely prove familiar to even non-classical music buffs – the only problem encountered by Mendelssohn while composing the piece, according to Lam, was reigning in his ebullience during the traditionally slower and contemplative second movement.

The symphony – and the ISO's performance – reached its frenzied climax during the final movement of the Italian symphony, a blindingly fast tarantella – an Italian dance inspired by the involuntary, spastic movements witnessed in victims of tarantula bites. Indeed, the speed and fury of the sound, combined with the literally poisonous inspiration, made the end of Mendelssohn's symphony feel akin to a classical equivalent of heavy metal. All in all, a fitting ending to an enjoyable and bracing evening of music.

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 performs music with Heptanes and Petulant Clark (among others) and can be reached via scottfaingold@gmail.com.

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