On April 8th, 2018 The Chicago Philharmonic continued their Glorious Earth season with a concert entitled Beyond The Black Sea at The North Shore Center For The Performing Arts, Skokie. Led by Conductor Scott Speck, and featuring acclaimed Guest Pianist Xiayin Wang, the concert consisted of 2 pieces by Russian conductors Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff preceded by excerpts from Phillip Glass’ score from The Secret Agent. Wang acquitted herself with sensitivity and style; it was easy to see why she has been referred to as “an artist with a winning combination of superb musicianship and riveting technical brilliance”.
In a wonderful addition to the afternoon, after the 8 minute Glass piece, Susan Leib, President, Illinois Council of Orchestras, presented this year’s award for “Professional Orchestra of the Year” to the Chicago Philharmonic through its Artistic Director, Scott Speck, in recognition of the excellence of the 2016-2017 season. Speck accepted the award mentioning how privileged he felt to work with “these outstanding chamber musicians”.
– Philip Glass Music from The Secret Agent, 1996
The film was acknowledged to be “a bomb”, and some critics have claimed that Glass’ score, with its strong main theme, actually interfered with the action! Contemporary analysis, however, has acknowledged that this “is one of Glass’ most restrained film scores”. The music is atmospheric, sometimes antiphonal, sometimes dramatic, and composed of attractive themes. The 2 portions played this afternoon, “Secret Agent” and “Secret Agent Ending” both included a signature Glass device, a repetitive theme that builds in intensity, here including both an extended English Horn solo by Anne Bach along with a Flute solo by John Thorne, both beautifully presented. The soloists led the vivid strings in the large ensemble group in an Asian sounding melody with almost snake-charming intrigue.
While this very enjoyable piece didn’t save the movie that was apparently less entertaining, it made a fine opening to a fine concert, and paved the way for Scott Speck’s very enthusiastic- and most enlightening- description of the “fate” themes in the upcoming Tchaikovsky piece. He also mentioned the most interesting fact that Rachmaninoff studied at Tchaikovsky’s school- his papers were marked “A++”.
– Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op.64, 1888
The 5th as played this afternoon was riveting as The Chicago Philharmonic fully articulated the complexity of its orchestration. Filled with brilliant themes in the Andante – Allegro through to the final great Finale, this is graceful music that was played with inspired grace. Speck kept the music moving fluidly with a deliberate pace in the opening movement wherein the music began to swell from its dark beginnings. The alternating climaxes of the brass and strings brought to fruition an intense and dramatic conception. The second movement Andante was compelling; the phrasing detail, particularly in the horn solos – with the lamenting themes in the winds- was fresh and passionate. The Waltz passed quickly into the Finale, beginning with a majestic march that accelerated smoothly into deliberate tempo in the Allegro vivace.
– Sergei Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, 1901
This is a much-loved masterpiece, performed by Wang with expertise and elegance, at once resonant and heartfelt. Wang and The Chicago Phiharmonic proved to be fine collaborators, Speck encouraging the orchestra when called for, and otherwise direct and supportive. The same can be said of the soloist; when she was the accompaniment, as in the Adagio, Wang’s circumspect virtuosity held the expressive wind solos aloft. Her nimble articulation mastered the complex figures with strong expressive energy. This is a piece of music both detailed and with a great arching trajectory; pianist and Orchestra reached the crest together.
The first movement began a creative display of fine piano playing interposed with a lyrically demonstrative orchestra; it ends with a march. There was a tension created in the middle of this moderately rapidly paced movement that ascended to a great height, with all of the instruments moving intensely forward under fine control. The second movement slowed down in preparation for the dramatic and turbulent finale, lushly portrayed with a near-constant flurry of notes between the piano and the orchestra, traversing up and down the scales. The finale climaxed with a sonorous fanfare.
– In Encore, Celebrating Our New Life, a Chinese folksong
Transcribed for piano by Wang- Hua Chu, one of the most distinguished Chinese composers and pianists, this is a piece that Ms. Wang has played in duet with her own father, a professional Erhu player. The Erhu is a 2-stringed bowed musical instrument- actually a spike fiddle- known to the Western world as the Chinese violin; it’s very versatile and used in both traditional and contemporary musical arrangements. This very rapid song sparkled with energy and life; the artist seemed exhilarated and transmitted that feeling to the audience.
Directly following the concert Scott Speck, Chicago Philharmonic Executive Director Donna Milanovich, and ten Chicago Philharmonic musicians flew out to begin a week of masterclasses, side-by-side rehearsals and performances in both Krakow and Luslawice. The exchange is the first part of the Chicago Philharmonic Festivaland Exchange: Poland 2018, a project that will culminate in a five-day festival of Polish music in Chicago in November 2018.
For information and tickets to all the fine programs of The Chicago Philharmonic, go to the chicagophilharmonic website
All photos by Elliot Mandel