Maestro bids farewell with a lively evening of American music | Culture

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Courtesy of the Illinois Symphony Orchestra.

ISO music director Ken Lam.

Last Saturday, the Illinois Symphony Orchestra presented a program called “American Journey” at the UIS Performing Arts Center. The concert was the finale to an enjoyable, if somewhat disappointing 2021-22 season, as in-person performance was cautiously reinstated in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The concert will also be the last led by outgoing music director Ken Lam, who has accepted an unspecified position at a “major international music institution” after five seasons at the helm of ISO. Lam would continue as “artistic advisor” for the symphony orchestra, and plans are already underway to launch the search for a new musical director.

Saturday’s program featured works described by Maestro Lam as “three pieces by three iconic composers”. The evening began with Iowa-born contemporary composer Michael Daugherty’s brief but hard-hitting musical travel diary, “Route 66,” which turned out to be fast, jazzy, and purely percussion-focused. “The percussionists are very happy because they’re not just counting silences, they’re actually playing most of the time,” Lam joked as he introduced the piece, also noting that a few ISO musicians had put on earplugs in due to increased noise.

Internationally acclaimed guest violinist William Hagen then took the stage for a thrilling rendition of Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Violin Concerto, which was first performed in 1947 by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra with soloist Jascha Heifetz. Korngold, a Jewish citizen of Vienna, had fatally accepted a job in California working on the musical score for Errol Flynn’s 1938 film, The Adventures of Robin Hood, when the Nazis invaded Austria. The job probably saved his life. Korngold remained in America and became a naturalized citizen in 1943.

According to Lam, Korngold’s highly dramatic and cinematic concerto has rarely been performed over the years, largely due to its difficulty in playing. Hagen, hailing from Salt Lake City, proved more than equal to the challenge posed by Korngold’s complexity, responding with a fiery and charismatic virtuoso performance. Hagen’s dynamism seemed to lift the ISO musicians to their own collective heights and there were even times when the soloist and conductor, brimming with kinetic spirit, almost seemed to go into a spontaneous dance. The rousing climax brought a rapturous audience to its feet.

After a short intermission, the second half of the evening consisted of two pieces by Pennsylvania-born composer Samuel Barber (1910-1981). The melancholy “Adagio for Strings” came first, described as a “national lament” by Lam, who also recalled his first encounter with composition, as a youth, listening to it on a car radio. “I was just blown away, it was the most amazing feeling,” he said. “[Barber] just touches you with his writing.”

The evening ended with Barber’s Symphony No. 1, which Lam described as “arguably America’s finest symphony” (with possible competition from Copland and/or Bernstein). The approximately 20-minute symphony is performed in one movement with four different sections. Characteristic of his enthusiastic and inclusive style, Lam began by guiding the audience through the elements of the piece, directing specific instrumentalists to demonstrate musical themes, providing uninitiated audience members with a “road map” of the work. of Barber. The ISO musicians gave a moving final performance under the direction of a conductor and musical director whose earnest and relatable presence and vision served both these dedicated musicians and their sparse but grateful audience very well. over the past particularly difficult years. .

Scott Faingold is director of student media at the University of Illinois at Springfield and co-founder and editor of Activator Magazine. He can be reached via [email protected].

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