BackStage

Its No Wonder

Its No Wonder

Apr 28, 2009

Today's review is from Chicago Tribune writer, Michael Cameron.

Given the sterling reputation he’s earned in music education circles, it’s no wonder Midwest Young Artist’s director Allan Dennis occasionally submits evidence of the value of his program and methodology through the accomplishments of former students.  Saturday night at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall he presented exhibit A: his daughter and violist extraordinaire, Carrie Dennis.

The eldest of three musical offspring has moved from one success to another since leaving the nest 15 years ago for studies at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia.  After graduation she accepted a post as associate principal violist with the Philadelphia Orchestra, moved on as principal violist with the Berlin Philharmonic, and now holds that same position with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.  As her performance of the Walton Viola Concerto with the MYA Symphony made clear, she would do well to make room in her busy orchestral schedule for more solo performances.

In short, this was the most absorbing, passionate and committed performance of this viola standard heard to date by this listener.  Dennis’ interpretation was refreshing in its risk-taking, and notable for a sound that was richly expressive in all registers. The opening lyrical phrases were a bit slower most, but she sustained the singing line with no obvious strain from one phrase to another.  The second movement bristled with virtuosic flourishes that fed an irresistible momentum right up to the final bars.

For all of the youthful vigor and impetuosity of her performance, there were promising signs of maturity and nuance.  When the concerto’s opening tunes recur in the finale, Ms. Dennis imbued them with a sense of resignation and a muted semplice sound that was a calming antidote to earlier angst.  Encouraged by her father, she delivered an elegant account of the Gigue from Bach’s Second Suite for solo cello for an encore.

Exhibit B was the orchestra itself, as fine an ensemble as any in MYA’s past, an impressive accomplishment given the rapid changes in personnel that are an inherent aspect of instructional music-making. The program opened with Barber’s “Adagio for Strings”, a popular choice of youth orchestras but deceptively difficult with its extremes of register and dynamics.  Maestro Dennis’ reading was nicely paced and cushioned with a vibrant lower register that is too often underplayed.

There is no greater test of the mettle of every section of a full orchestra than Holst’s “The Planets”.  It takes a high level of technical accomplishment and ensemble finesse to pull off this gigantic work, and for the most part Dennis and company handled the innumerable challenges well. After a suitably menacing and mechanistic account of “Mars, The Bringer of War”, each subsequent movement aimed a spotlight on particular soloists or sections.

“Venus, The Bringer of Peace” was a marvelous vehicle for principal horn player Jessie Clevenger (yes, from that Clevenger family), concertmaster Tyler Lin and principal cellist Stanley Moore.  Just as notable were the delicate high octaves from the violins, passages that are often the undoing of professional orchestras.

“Mercury, The Winged Messenger” moved with fleet abandon, brimming with a delicacy and precision rare in musicians of such tender years.  “Jupiter, The Bringer of Jollity” was marked was boisterous good spirits, neatly balancing highjinks (the entire range of brass) with elfin agility (courtesy of the woodwinds).  “Saturn, The Bringer of Old Age” reveled in broad strokes and shimmered with low register flutes that painted a chilly portrait of distant space.  “Uranus, The Magician” bulldozed forward with a raucous mischeviousness, while the tapering chords of the women’s chorus provided the memorably eerie final bars of “Neptune, The Mystic”.

As powerful as the performances were, even more moving was the palpable sense of dedication and affection among the students for their mentors and their music.  Talent and dedication can carry musicians far, but these other intangibles were the fuel that gave this concert a genuine sense of occasion.

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