Smile Politely

Coming into work on time

The fine staff at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts are seemingly coming up with a plan both curious and interesting for their programming. Every year or so, I get the yearly program that comes in the mail as a result of going to an inordinate amount of concerts there, and most years it’s the same stuff around the same time. The Chinese Circus, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, The Royal Regiment of Scotland, Ellnora, The Nutcracker — these are all very welcome choices of programming for the center, but they are also quite standard, and for good reason. When I go to these concerts, I rarely see empty seats. They’re a good draw. They’re well known.

Recently, however, Krannert has begun to cater to what one might call “fledgling” acts, and to orchestras not necessarily in the prestige range of a Chicago Symphony or Joshua Bell. Over these past three semesters, I have been to three highly-touted symphony orchestra concerts where the orchestra has not been a household name. The first of these was the Tchaikovsky St. Petersburg Symphony Orchestra, back in spring of last year, and I distinctly remember that concert for being both programmatically challenging and one of the more unusual setups I had come across. (When I told my friend Rachel from Julliard that this orchestra had more basses than cellos, she responded that the orchestra had called some of her classmates to sit in with them on the tour.)

Late last fall, the National Symphony Orchestra of Cuba, in their first U.S. visit, entertained the mostly packed hall with one of the oddest concerts I have ever been to. This concert featured two Latin jazz piano solos by “Nachito” Herrera, a free-form “Rhapsody in Blue,” and Mendelssohn Italian Symphony as a finale.

The same spirit those two orchestras brought to the hall — a decidedly different spirit from the stoic mood one might expect at Krannert — was brought in full force this weekend as the China National Symphony Orchestra came to town to play a most European program. Excepting the beginning piece, Xia Guan’s Earth Requiem, the concert was dominated by turn of the century Finnish and Germanic music, performed in a vein I had not heard from orchestras past.

The thing that I noted about the orchestra, with a few exceptions, was the taste with which they played. It is very easy to go crazy on Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben, and it is very easy to play in a saccharine fashion when given a piece like the introduction of the concert, Earth Requiem. The orchestra, however, did not stray far from control at all in the concert. Requiem, in fact, was quite soothing. The program notes for this piece, the first of a few movements in a larger symphonic work of a Sino-nationalist tilt, suggest that this piece is supposed to evoke the power of staring up at the skies, into the stars. The notes also say that this piece was written shortly after the Sichuan earthquake of 2008, and was written in the midst of the destruction there. The piece, and specifically how it was played, gave off the right mood to evoke these two images: somber, profound, yet ultimately tranquil. If this is the beginning of a “Chinese” style symphony, it’s a good start.

And now, for something completely different. Jean Sibelius, the Finnish composer from the turn of the century, is someone I consider to be the most stark, raw, emotional composer I could name. (He once wrote an entire sad waltz called, typically, “Sad Waltz.”) His Violin Concerto, championed by the great Jascha Heifetz, is no different, and to boot it is a pain in the ass to play. Imagine the fireworks, then, when the soloist Chuanyun Li came out to the limelight with a noticeable limp. I have since looked this soloist up online, and I have not been able to find any evidence that this person is in fact disabled. If he is, no matter; Itzhak Perlman has polio, and he’s probably the best violinist alive, if not ever. If he wasn’t disabled, however, and he legitimately injured his leg or back before playing one of the harder violin pieces out there, full marks to him. I don’t hear this piece often, and when I do it’s often dour. This time, however, Li’s controlled playing did wonders for the audience. During two moments, one dramatic crescendo and one particularly hard run, I actually saw the front row of the audience jump out of their chair. This, to me, is the definition of keeping an audience captivated by your playing.

If the Guan was profound and tranquil, and the Sibelius was moody and stark, the Strauss was a smorgasbord of emotion. Ein Heldenleben, or “A Hero’s Story,” is an entire symphonic tone poem all about Richard Strauss, the guy who wrote Ein Heldenleben. You could see how this piece was perhaps more positive than the rest. I saw the U of I Symphony Orchestra perform Heldenleben in the recent past, and at that time I found this piece to be boring and all over the place. This is not a slam on the UISO; they played it quite well, to near technical perfection, but the piece in general was too heavy. This time, however, it was played in such a sparkling fashion that I actually found myself rooting for the hero. In particular, the concertmaster Yunzhi Liu played his frustrating cadenzas quite well and with good taste, never trying to outdo the orchestra behind him, never playing with out of control volume. The brass, especially the trumpets that played offstage in one of the myriad of backstage hallways at KCPA, were very clear and crisp. Strauss’ tone poems can, at times, drive audience members to check their phones often, but this time he was done right.

One thing I noticed as I was getting up to leave was how happy everyone in the orchestra seemed. Many of the members stayed on stage after the concert, posing for group photos taken by various string members. Those on stage were quick to poke fun at the poor percussionist who tripped and dropped all of the cymbals on the floor, making a gigantic noise in the process. It really seemed as though on this day they had enjoyed themselves, and they had enjoyed playing this music, which resulted in me enjoying some songs I hadn’t liked before. This mood, one echoed by the previous newer orchestras in kind, is a welcome addition to Krannert, and perhaps a worthy suggestion for those standard acts in the future.

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