John Frayne | UI symphony was a mixed bag | Music

The University of Illinois symphony program on October 22 was balanced between the very familiar Symphony No.5 by Peter Tchaikovsky and what was surely a Champaign-Urbana premiere, the Fifth Symphony by acclaimed American composer John Harbison.

On October 20, Harbison gave a lecture on the composition of his Fifth Symphony, and there I gained partial familiarity with the three poems that are set to music in his Fifth Symphony. The poems are “Orpheus and Eurydice” by the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz (Nobel Prize for Literature 1980), “Relic” by the American poet Louise Glück and Sonnet 13 from the second part of “Les sonnets à Orphée” by the famous Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke.

Before the music started at the October 22 concert, acting UI Symphony conductor William Eddins announced that composer Harbison would not be conducting his symphony, as originally announced, and also that he, Eddins, had chosen not to conduct it either, so it would be conducted by the two graduate student assistants who had apparently prepared the orchestra during rehearsals. The two assistant conductors, Nathan Sawyer and David Stech, would each conduct half of the symphony. As all four movements were to be played without a break, the baton would have shifted from one conductor to another at a quiet time midway through.

Milosz’s poem, which tells the story of Orpheus in a modern setting, is long and complex. Glück’s brief lyrical poem is less so, and Rilke’s poem is short but very complex. Yet none of the chants were included in Harbison’s program notes. The only text cited in the program was a free translation by Harbison himself of Rilke’s sonnet, but not the Stephen Mitchell translation that was used in the Symphony.

Thus, the participant who did not prepare before the concert had to rely on the text sung by UI voice teacher Nathan Gunn, baritone, and Thereza Lituma, mezzo-soprano, who is pursuing graduate studies in voice. For my part, I must confess that I only understood isolated portions of Milosz’s poem sung by Gunn, although thanks to the lecture I “got” the crucial moment in Milosz’s account where Orpheus looks behind. him Eurydice and that there is no one there. Much of Harbison’s setting to music of Milosz’s poem was a rather dry declamation to my ears. But the Crisis (Eurydice’s second loss) and the end of Milosz’s poem provided Gunn with dramatically captivating music, and he sang there with dramatic passion.

The lines in Glück’s poem were clear only in fragments, but Harbison for this poem gave warmer and more passionate lines to sing, and Lituma, singing with a rich and lush tone, delivered this music with appealing conviction. . As part of Rilke’s poem, the voices of Gunn and Lituma vividly overlapped, and the singing of the splendid, albeit baffling, Rilke Sonnet was an impressive conclusion.

Throughout the Symphony, Harbison’s music offered many attractions, a powerful and murky overture and melodious interludes played by electric guitarist Guido Alejandro Sánchez Portuguez. Hearing an electric guitar in a symphony orchestra in the large Foellinger hall was a first for me. The student orchestra’s playing in Harbison’s intricate music was admirable, and the conduct of Sawyer and Stech was of a confident professional standard. The applause at the end of the Harbison Symphony was very loud. Many stood up and the composer stood up to recognize this positive reaction.

Whatever challenges the Harbison Symphony presents to an audience, Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony has no secrets as to its intentions. The work opens with a march similar to a funeral dirge in minor, and this melody is ominously quoted in subsequent movements, but then erupts at the end of the work in the splendor of the major key. Eddins led the students of the UI Symphony in a dramatic and singing reading of this masterpiece. The horn player who produced such a beautiful playing in the second movement was called in for a solo bow, as the audience stood up and applauded.

John Frayne presents “Classics of

le Phonographe ”Saturdays at WILL-FM and, retired, teaches at UI. He can be contacted at

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