August 22, 2012
Shaham, chorus drive great week at Penninsula Music Festival

By Marty Lash

Green Bay Press Gazette

August 22, 2012

Things keep getting better at Peninsula Music Festival.The season got off to a great start in its first week with very fine performances of music by Copland, Gershwin, Mussorgsky and others. Last week’s performances were to treasure.

The Aug. 14 concert was an all-Mozart program, featuring his 21st Piano Concerto. For a very long time this work was erroneously known as the “Elivia Madigan Concerto.” It received that title after its second movement was famously used in a very depressing 1967 Swedish film of the same name. Mozart has written a lot of great slow concerto movements but somehow the main theme from the movement caught the imagination of many. Today, the film is hardly ever referred to, but Mozart’s wonderful music lives on.

Vibrant pianist Orli Shaham, who was exceptional in last week’s performance of a Gershwin concerto, returned to play the Mozart. Once again she proved to be an exceptional performer. Her body language conveyed how connected she was to the music and the orchestra. Her performance was bold and strong in the big movements and poetic in its quieter passages. Her interpretation was very poetic and her playing in the first movement cadenza was dazzling.

The remaining works by Mozart on the program were his Serenade No. 12 for two horns, two oboes, two clarinets and two bassoons and his 39th Symphony.

The serenade is an intimate chamber piece. Given the small number of instruments it calls for, it is often played without a conductor. Maestro Victor Yampolsky and his players delivered it in a brisk, no-nonsense manner. There was a nice combination of brilliance and warmth in the reading.

The symphony also was well-played with very good sensitivity to what the composer intended. Yampolsky managed to capture the work's high spirits and geniality. It was a pleasure to hear.

The biggest, most ambitious undertaking this season is PMF’s rendition of Beethoven’s famous Ninth Symphony, the “Choral,” which was part of the Aug. 18 program. It is arguably the richest, most provocative symphonic work Beethoven created. For its time, it was relatively long, complicated and requires a lot of work to pull it off.

To this day the work remains highly influential. Composers as diverse as Wagner, John Adams and Schubert have referenced the Ninth in their compositions. Its structure and meaning are still discussed and it remains both a mystery and a tower among all classical compositions. This is one piece of classical music that will be played, discussed and revered well into the future. Its meaning and spirituality will be pondered. After the noise, chaos, static and trend-setting music has been forgotten, this work with endure and inspire. Many of those who hear it for the first time will be stopped dead in their tracks.For the performance, PMF amassed the combined forces of Chicago’s wonderful Apollo Chorus and the Peninsula Music Festival Chorus, led, respectively, by Stephen Alltop and Judy Jackson. The outstanding quartet of soloists was Kimberly McCord, Tracy Watson, Noah Baetge and Jacob Lassetter.

The reading was one for the books. Using consistently brisk tempi, Yampolsky kept the music clean and transparent. The first three movements, for orchestra only, had fine polish and finesse. The big, ecstatic choral finale was powerful and intense.

I have nothing but praise for the performance. I must say that I am particularly drawn to performances of this work that are slower and a bit darker, but there are many ways to view the work, and Yampolsky emphasized its light and brilliance, which made great sense. I would have liked the third movement to have been taken not quite so fast, but it was in keeping with the conductor’s overall vision of the piece.

The program also held Samuel Barber’s brief “Knoxville: Summer of 1915.” Along with his famous Adagio for Strings, this is one of Barber’s most evocative works. The piece uses words by James Agee and very effectively conveys the mood of a time that was more innocent, quiet and plaintive. It’s filled with nostalgia. The soloist for the work was McCord, whose rendition of the piece was ravishing.

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