Thunderous applause and deafening cheers are expected at sporting events. But in keeping with cultural mores, athletic feats and rousing responses are not usually associated with symphony concerts. The historical record smashes this ill-founded stereotype; finely-clad audiences in some of Europe's classiest concert halls have been known to resort to all manner of unbridled reactions, from chanting and clapping in praise to hurling tomatoes.
A moment when art touches you to the point that you lose inhibitions is a sacred slice of time?#34;and all too rare?#34;especially in the refined culture of 21st-century America. To experience such a moment with an audience of several hundred at First United Church of Oak Park on May 1, at the Symphony of Oak Park and River Forest's season finale, was nearly on par with an adrenalin rush from bungee-jumping.
The ignition for this thrill ride was Robert Schumann's Concert Piece for Four Horns and Orchestra, composed in Dresden when Schumann was 39. Schumann considered that year (1849) as his most fruitful musically. Amid the political revolutions sweeping central Europe (which, incidentally sent Robert and family into hiding for a few suspenseful days), he wrote, "The outer storms seemed to compel people inward," which I take to mean contemplating music and poetry, two of Schumann's loves.
After a rousing opening fanfare, the Concert Piece presents four French horn soloists in both energetic and lyrical sections, pitted against a full orchestra in a sort of "us against them" rivalry that is unique in the horn repertoire. Although the orchestra, under the inspired direction of Conductor Jay Friedman, performed wonderfully, the horns came out on top. Their performance was as stunningly athletic (think of all the muscles and coordination required to drive a column of air through 12 feet of brass tubing!) as it was artistically compelling.
The line-up featured some of the nation's undoubtedly finest horn players, who hold impressive and highly-sought after chairs in Chicago's top musical ensembles. The expert musical skill of Jonathan Boen, Oto Carrillo, Dave Griffin and Gabrielle Webster was impressive, but musical technique doesn't send an audience into swoons. Musical playing does, and theirs held such depth, drive and sparkle that the crowd was swept up in the brilliance of it all. The response was lengthy and fervent applause and shouts of "bravo" worthy of a grand slam home run.
Friedman's intriguing programming opened the concert with the Chicago premiere of Bruce Polay's Illumination for Orchestra. In an informative discussion before the concert, Polay confessed that, unlike the other composers on the program, he was alive! And blowing away the common, but false, preconception about new music, Polay's language was not as jarringly dissonant as sections of the Prokofiev work from 1936 heard later.
In 2003, the Galesburg Symphony Society commissioned Illumination to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Joseph Smith, founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Polay, who has been twice named Illinois Conductor of the Year, conducted the premier. He likened his musical soundscape to the view of a cloud that changes with the light over time. The shimmering texture of many sections of Illumination captured the image vividly.
Like many composers after Debussy and Wagner, in Illumination, Polay downplays predictable classical form and traditional melody, emphasizing instead slow-rolling masses of sounds and static harmonies that highlight the tone colors of the orchestra. From its Illinois roots, the sounds of Illumination easily and gently bring to mind a sky stretched above the prairie. A smattering of hymn tunes disguised among the lush fabric of sound related to Smith's teachings, which he expressed as light from God that illumines knowledge.
Led by Associate Conductor Ho Chung Yeh, Prokofiev's Suite from the ballet Romeo and Juliet, Op. 64 tied together the romantic and contemporary elements of this program. This performance of Romeo and Juliet played up Prokofiev's strong proclivity towards narrative forms like ballet and opera, with lines from Shakespeare's play narrated by Henry Fogel.
Fogel is an international figure in the world of orchestral music, and his voice is recognizable from nationwide broadcasts of Collectors' Corner, heard Sunday evenings on WFMT. Fogel was one of the original trio, along with National Symphony Orchestra Conductor Mstislav Rostropovich and Washington Post music critic Paul Hume, who sought to match Shakespeare's words to Prokofiev's music 25 years ago.
The dramatic readings and intense musical interpretation of this anguish-filled story finished off a cathartic, adrenalin-packed afternoon and ended the symphony's season with more raving accolades from the happy crowd.