Smile Politely

Sinfonia da Camera delivered a robust performance at Smith Recital Hall

Ian Hobson is well known for themed concerts with the Sinfonia da Camera, and the December 4 concert at Smith Memorial Hall gave local audiences a reminder how just such a theme can be a lesson worth learning.  The theme was the music of Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921) and the lesson was that this great French composer needs to be heard more on concert stages.

Smith Memorial Hall has more than fine, warm acoustics for a symphony concert. This historic campus building, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, has lots of tradition and has been a cornerstone of the University of Illinois’ School of Music since the 1920s. Its 870 seat recital hall also possesses a three-manual Casavant concert organ. Maestro Hobson utilized the special qualities of Smith Memorial Hall to bring the music of this French composer to local audiences.

The music listening public would most likely know Saint-Saens from a few well traveled works and one of those is “Dance Macabre,” a virtuoso work for violin and orchestra. Here you have real orchestral fireworks with a spectacular violin solo part, played wonderfully by Concertmaster Michael Barts. Ian Hobson really pumps energy into his ensemble and this well traveled work provides real fireworks.

Probably no work of Camille Saint-Saens is better known than “Carnival of the Animals.” This musical program music of various entities of the animal kingdom has been utilized as soundtrack music in such films as “Fantasia 2000” and “Days of Heaven.” Its small ensemble demands and downright musical parody fun have long made it a public favorite. But Saint-Saens’ 14 musical portraits were dismissed by him to the point where he forbad all public performances, except “The Swan,”  until after his death. He felt these lighthearted pieces would diminish his reputation as a serious composer. So from 1886 to 1922, all but one of these delightful animal portraits were shelved. Once the public heard them, Saint-Saens had his biggest hit.

Maestro Hobson adds Ogden Nash’s 1949 narration, and this master of light verse – who so often paid tribute to the animal kingdom in his verses – came up with the perfect companion to “Carnival of the Animals.”  Noel Coward was the originally designated narrator and in 1950, he recorded it with Andre Kostelanetz. This recording, though justly famous, had only brief lives on compact disc and is mainly available on streaming services. So, why not enjoy it live?

Hobson recruited Lisa Gaye Dixon from the Theatre Department for the narrative part, and she shines. Her lively narration paired with the Sinfonia’s spirited musical portraits reminds us why this composition remains so popular.

Another University of Illinois faculty member, this time from The School of Music, adds the final touch to the final item on the program, Saint-Saens’ “Symphony #3, for Organ and Orchestra.” Professor Dana Robinson is the soloist at the keyboard at the superb Casavant concert organ that punctuates this extraordinary 1886 symphony. Written around the same time as “Carnival of the Animals,” it was commissioned by the London Philharmonic and first performed by that orchestra. Saint-Saens thought so much of this composition that he conducted the premiere himself.  It was an immediate hit, with fellow French composer Charles Gounod hailing Saint-Saens as “The French Beethoven.” It has remained the most popular of his five symphonies, noting here that there are two unnumbered symphonies from his early years that he suppressed. This instant classic is still a classic with more than thirty recordings of this work available.

Maestro Hobson and his Sinfonia took on the challenges of this large orchestral work with dedication and enthusiasm. Hearing their performance, it is hard to believe that Sinfonia da Camera literally means chamber orchestra. The Sinfonia delivered a robust performance of this great symphony with equally superlative punctuation from the organ work of Dana Robinson. The warm acoustics of Smith Memorial Hall added one more reason to love this evening.

Camille Saint-Saens is not a major mainstay of the current concert stages, but perhaps a few more dedicated concerts like this one might enhance his star quality on the classical performing circuit. The Sinfonia da Camera next performs on January 29 at Krannert’s Foellinger Great Hall with an evening of Rossini, Schubert and Mendelssohn.

Top photo from Sinfonia da Camera’s Facebook.

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