Illinois Philharmonic Preview: Beethoven's 9th at the Peninsula Music Festival

A preview of the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra's Beethoven 9th concert via a review of the Peninsula Music Festival performance

Hello to Homewood, Flossmoor, and now several other communities thanks to the good people at Patch. I blog about the events at the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra (among other things) but I'm away from the action at this point as our new IPO music director, David Danzmayr, is coming to town to meet all of you on Sunday the 26th at the Lincoln-Way North Performing Arts Center. Here is the website for details. And a link to a previous comic (hopefully) blog I did about the event.



I apologize for the long post. Usually, I don't go much beyond a page. But, since the IPO is going to perform the Beethoven 9th Symphony on May 11th, 2013 under Maestro Danzmayr, I thought that I would send a review along since I'm hoping that my enthusiasm for the work will entice you to attend our local performance. The performance that I attended was on the 18th of August by the Peninsula Music Festival Orchestra at the Door County Auditorium. First, maybe I should set the scene.

The Door County Auditorium is an intimate structure which, I am guessing, seats a bit less than a thousand. There is a small balcony and some boxes which are raised seats along the side of the auditorium next to the main floor. The fly area above the stage has a few strips of cloth draping the the area and presumably hiding some stage lighting. But the stage is open to the ceiling of the three-story structure which is a wooden A-frame like a barn. The long, but shallow stage is surrounded by wooden paneling which is shaped in 20-foot blocks and with four “tiles” within the blocks textured in different wood-grain orientations just like a parquet floor. This makes for a very resonant auditorium.

The orchestra is very good. Since this is a resort area, many musicians will come for the rest and recreation and pick up some fine musical experiences and some income while they vacation. One of the most famous musicians associated with the Peninsula Music Festival was pianist John Browning. He told the story about his first performing experience in the area and how he thought he was going to be playing in an orchestra of average regional ability. He was jolted to attention (and a very alert performance on his part) when he heard the orchestral introduction of the concerto he was rehearsing and was experiencing sounds that he associated with a major symphony orchestra. At the time the principal clarinet of the Peninsula Music Festival Orchestra was Robert Marcellus who was also principal clarinet of the great Cleveland Orchestra (and who made one of the most famous recordings of the Mozart Clarinet Concerto—see photo). Since the opening piece of this concert was by Samuel Barber, I also attached the cover of the album of Barber piano music that John Browning recorded. John Browning was closely associated with Barber's music—he also was the collaborating pianist on a complete set of Barber songs—and perhaps the Barber music this season at Door County is an homage to him because he became a Door Country resident and was a great soloist and champion of the Peninsula Music Festival.

This concert was something that I was looking forward to on many levels. Obviously, the anytime the Beethoven 9th is on the program , it is a special event. And the music director of the Peninsula Music Festival is Victor Yampolsky whose work has always been uniformly excellent whether as an Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra guest conductor, at Northwestern University where he leads the conducting program or previous concerts I've heard here in Door County. Yampolsky is worth a trip to Door County, himself.  And they also have a to-die-for web address:


However, I was eager to hear Kimberly McCord, who was the soprano the soloist in Knoxville Summer of 1915 by Samual Barber which comprised the first part of the program.  She also sang the soprano part of the solo quartet in the Beethoven 9th. I had heard Ms. McCord about 5 years ago when she sang a little solo recital as a reward concert for donors—even relatively small donors like me—for a musical non-profit organization. The concert was held in an estate in Oak Park which was notable because it had a Wedgwood Room and a Fazioli piano. Ms. McCord wowed us with her voice and personality performing several standard soprano pieces as well as the comical aria, “Art is Calling to Me,” where the soprano has lines like, “I want to be a peachy, screechy, cantatrice.” I thought that she had sure-fire potential, but this was in a relatively small room, and I was uncertain of my judgment. Ms McCord's day job is in the chorus at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. But I was very happy to hear of her success when she stepped in for an indisposed soprano for the Music of the Baroque's St. Matthew Passion. That's a major Chicago performing organization. I was able to hear her very pleasing performance in the Mozart Solemn Vespers myself when she performed again with the Music of the Baroque. (In college, I was a chorus member in a performance of the Mozart. That's about the limits of my performing experience—I am a not even a mediocre musician.)

But this is more prominent solo than the Mozart or the Bach. Barber's piece is for soprano and a modestly sized orchestra. The images are mundane—people rocking on hammocks, talking sociably, street clatter, family relations, love of family, a child going to bed—but Barber is a great melodist and as a vocal performer, himself, had a great sense of what the voice could do. The text had great personal significance for Barber because his father was dying at the time of the composition. It really is one of the few American compositions for voice and orchestra that I know that are directly communicative. (Another would be the Copland “Old American Songs.”) Ms. McCord was wonderful. The opening rocking theme was so beautifully performed that one wished it never ended. Fortunately, it returned more than once. The voice was young sounding, with fine dynamics including very melting pianissimi. The diction was very good, too, and I was moved greatly when she sang of the goodness of her mother and father.

The Yampolsky-lead Beethoven 9th Symphony was extraordinary. Sometimes, it simplifies things to think of conductors holding different positions on the Furtwängler-Toscanini spectrum. Furtwängler, the spiritualist, dramatist, emotional musical interventionalist was less concerned about accuracy and keeping a steady tempo than communication. The other pole was Toscanini--direct, no-nonsense, accurate and vigorous. Yet make no mistake—both were passionate. While Yampolsky studied with Bernstein, who was well on the emotional side of the spectrum, there is no doubt that he has the most respect for the Toscanini point of view. Yet, this performance was all Yampolsky.

The opening movement was propulsive and strong. (Interestingly, the opening had a bit of the Furtwängler mist rather than the Toscanini separation of notes.) Yampolsky splits the second violins across the stage from the firsts. This really pays dividends when they answer each other from a distance during moments like the crescendo at the end of the exposition. I really learned to appreciate the contrapuntal (note against note in separate melodies) genius of this work during this performance.

The second movement was, as expected, very energetic. Yampolsky is not a stickler for taking all the repeats. (He took the first section only, I believe.) He was a stickler for keeping the Beethoven orchestration and not adding in supportive horn parts, that even Toscanini used, during the rollicking woodwind lines. Eric Olsen, oboe and Richard Britsch, horn, did fine work in the middle, trio section.

The third movement sometimes is performed as thought it holds the weight of all humanity's spirit on its shoulders. Not here. This playing was clear and song-like, not slow and meditative. Yampolsky takes note that the Adagio molto (Very slow) tempo is not asked for throughout the movement. Because of the second violins seating separately, it really brought home that the second theme in the double variations is their theme.

In the finale, the opening chord was intense, but didn't bring down Valhalla. The cellos and basses had great phrasing of their lines but the entrance of the famous “joy” theme was not done piannissimo as is often done to great mystical effect but merely soft—as written--as though stating simply, not whispering, “Yes, we've found the answer of brotherhood and here it is.” Unlike the split violins, the visiting Apollo Chorus of Chicago and the Peninsula Festival Chorus were placed with the sopranos intermixed with the basses to the left and the altos were likewise blended within the tenors on the right of the audience. I guess “blend” is the appropriate musical term, too. The choral sound had plenty of presence, but the effect was diffuse all across the stage rather than coming in separate directional entrances. The sopranos were able to sing their brutal high parts with seeming ease and beauty. The great sentiments of the piece came across exuberantly when called for and meditatively at those moments. Stephen Altop, Director of the Apollo and Judith Jackson of the Festival Chorus, got their due bows at the end.

Before the performance, tenor Noah Baetge was announced as a substitute soloist for the finale of the Beethoven. (Earlier, the Festival Executive Director, Sharon Grutzmacher, had the newbees to the Festival audience stand up and be recognized, a nice touch.) This seemed a last minute thing but that hardly seems possible since he gave a really great performance of the hero's march music. The rest of the quartet quartet of Ms McCord, soprano, Tracy Watson, mezzo, and Jacob Lassetter, baritone, were fine in their ensemble work. Mr. Lassetter got a bit lost in his opening solo but made a workable recovery. The ovation at the end was loud and lusty. Yampolsky, for the first time perhaps out of control, marched off the stage leaving his soloists behind to follow at the first bow. But he directed them efficiently on and off for several further bows.

Now, I can't wait until May when the Chicago Southland gets its own Beethoven 9th with our own dashing and dynamic music director, David Danzmayr, and the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra.

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Daniel Pyne January 15, 2013 at 10:44 PM
Hello Chuck. Thanks for the great article. I also attended the Barber/Knoxville and Beethoven 9 concert at the Peninsula Music Festival and was floored by the quality. And I agree that Kimberly McCord's interpretation of Knoxville: Summer of 1915 was the best I have ever heard. You may be interested to know that Ms. McCord is starring as Dido in The Haymarket Opera Company's production of Dido and Aeneas February 15-16 2013. More information can be found at: http://haymarketopera.org
Chuck Amenta January 17, 2013 at 06:27 PM
Thanks for your very kind remarks. And a thousand thanks for the heads up on the upcoming McCord performance. I've been to that Mayne Stage venue for a couple of Sunday AM concerts but never an opera. Should be very intimate


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