Azusa Tashiro performed Piazzolla’s Four Seasons of Buenos Aires with the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra in Palos Heights on Saturday evening.
After a bright start to the season, the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra, led by music director Stilian Kirov, offered a more subdued but equally captivating program Saturday night in Palos Heights at Trinity Christian College’s Ozinga Chapel. On the program: a bit of Piazzolla, a Mozart lodestar, and to start with a world premiere by an up-and-coming composer.
Oswald Huỳnh is the IPO’s Composer in Residence for the 2023-24 season, the latest milestone in the composer’s impressive career. (In 2024, Huỳnh will move to Louisville to take on the role of creator-in-residence with the Louisville Orchestra.) The Portland, Oregon-based composer has been celebrated for his striking, textured ensemble scores that explore themes of cultural heritage and the Embrace identity.
Huỳnh’s program note describes Then, as if Breathing, the sea swelled under us – the title borrows a line from Vietnamese-American poet Ocean Vuong – as a “consideration of family traditions, the dynamics of intergenerational relationships, and the barriers to communication between eras.” The piece consists of three movements and explores the ideas from a literary perspective.
The first movement, “Uống nước nhớ nguồn,” begins with a daring piece for solo cello, performed with soulful and breathless lyricism by principal cellist Jacob Hanegan. As the cello line yields, a subtly iridescent cloud of overtones blooms and ripples like puddles of mercury.
A supple, sinuous violin duet with canonical delay introduces: “But birds, as you say, fly forward.” As other voices in the orchestra take on the echoing melody, the rest of the ensemble wafts with gentle waves of whispered sounds, punctuated by Col-Legno- snapshots.
Huỳnh’s gift for creating captivating melodies and conjuring sonic atmosphere is evident in “Then,” as if he were breathing, but at times the work’s nebulous sense of form – coupled with a loose interpretive hand on Kirov’s part – left the latter parts of the first and second sentence with a feeling of aimlessness.
The finale, “I Will Learn to Love a Monster,” offers a solution to this problem thanks to a repeated passacaglia-like structure anchored by a supple cello line. This ostinato forms the backbone for the development of the other effects before transforming from a repeated line into a lush cello cadenza that structurally reflects the drama of the movement’s beginning.
Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra concertmaster Azusa Tashiro was the soloist of Astor Piazzolla’s ironic, charismatic work “Four Seasons of Buenos Aires,” which was a highlight of the evening. Tashiro consistently combined serious feeling with schmaltz and verve, but he shined in the expansive lyricism that characterized “Invierno Porteño.” Great praise once again goes to principal cellist Jacob Hanegan, whose excellent solo work in “Otoño Porteño” complemented Tashiro’s tense and haunting recitation of the movement’s cadenza.
The slender string orchestra configuration provided a supple and balanced support, guided by Kirov’s deft hand. The conductor recorded a gauzy sound enhanced by a bright tempo in the opening piece, “Verano Porteño,” and in “Primavera Porteña,” Kirov gave a jolt of rhythmic determination after a rocky start before the rest of the orchestra returned to the brisk tango.
However, changes of pace proved to be a challenge throughout the evening; A poorly coordinated downshift near the end of “Otoño” achieved a tempo that, while not enough to detract from the technical achievement, did drain some life from the movement.
After intermission, a fleet of brass replaced the strings for Mozart’s Gran Partita, a hardly obscure work that has nevertheless enjoyed some memorable performances in Chicago in recent seasons. However, unlike the hearty first aperitifs of the first half of the program, the main course was largely lacking in strong flavors overall.
A clumsy introduction marked the inauspicious beginning of the opening Largo, which was characterized by a bass-heavy, bottom-heavy sonority. The ensemble sound was additionally burdened by the doughy articulation of the wind instruments, which prevented the movement from rising even in the “Allegro molto” section.
This ballast suited the royal minuetto better in the second movement and underlined the contrasts between tutti and solo moments. Of these, the first trio shone brightest, thanks to a particularly delicate and nuanced performance from the orchestra’s wonderful clarinet.
Kirov introduced a lighter note that opened up the sound of the Adagio and gave it an understated solemnity despite the movement’s beatific associations. Throughout the Partita, the orchestra’s principal conductors—particularly oboist Naomi Bensdorf Frisch and clarinetist Claire Werling—delivered solos with eloquence, grace, and unified tonal purity.
In contrast, Kirov minimized his gestures to let his musicians loose in the revealing Rondo; They tore through the main theme with a spirited, even manic energy, giving the program much-needed momentum to close it out.
The Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra’s season continues with a program of holiday music with the Chicago Community Chorus on December 9 at 7:30 p.m. ipomusic.org
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