Now in his second season as music director, David Danzmayr is well on his way toward establishing his Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra as one of the leading suburban orchestras in the Chicago area. One way the gifted young Austrian conductor is achieving that is to offer programs that challenge his musicians even as they broaden the musical awareness of audience members. He scored a success on both fronts with the concert he led Saturday night.
The venue was not the orchestra's permanent home, Lincoln-Way North Performing Arts Center in south suburban Frankfort, but, rather the Harris Theater for Music and Dance at Millennium Park. Danzmayr felt that a concert as ambitious as this — highlighted by what was believed to be the U.S. premiere of Alexander von Zemlinsky's Symphony in D minor — deserved to be showcased in a major downtown Chicago auditorium where it might attract a wider public.
Although the Harris was far from full, the event realized its other objectives very well indeed. The Zemlinsky rarity clearly benefited from extra rehearsals, and the players responded to Danzmayr's decisive direction with solid playing in every department throughout the evening.
A prominent figure in Viennese musical life in the late 1800s, Zemlinsky was perhaps the most important composer to suffer the consequences of having his music suppressed by the Nazis and largely forgotten following World War II. Not until recent decades has his substantial output resurfaced in concerts and on recordings.
Leading the crusade has been conductor James Conlon, who staged a major rescue effort on Zemlinsky's behalf in 2007 at Ravinia, where he directed several of the composer's operas and orchestral works with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, as part of his invaluable "Breaking the Silence" series. But Zemlinsky's music has since fallen back into neglect locally, so Danzmayr's rescue mission on behalf of the Austrian composer's 1892 symphony was a major event in the classical music life of the area.
Although the work dates from Zemlinsky's student years, it is remarkably well-constructed, full of appealing melodies, and it doesn't sound at all like a student effort. Modernism was still in the making, and Zemlinsky had yet to find the lushly chromatic voice of his mature works. The music is conservative in manner and shows how skillfully the 21-year-old absorbed the classical models of his day. If you didn't know better, you would easily mistake it for one of the lesser-known Dvorak symphonies.
Danzmayr had the measure of the D minor symphony, and he instilled his musical belief in his players with absolute conviction. Especially notable were the inner movements, the "Allegro scherzando" with its playful nod to the bucolic realm of Dvorak, and the slow movement with its echoes of Anton Bruckner, albeit less weighty and less expansively developed.
Apart from a stray horn bobble and an early violin entrance near the end, the Zemlinsky was extremely well played, the sonorities warm and well balanced and heard to advantage in the Harris acoustics, far superior to those of the orchestra's regular home. Perhaps Danzmayr will follow up with a performance of Zemlinsky's even more interesting Symphony in B flat.
The concert's first half brought to the fore the Avalon String Quartet, one of the most exciting of the younger string quartets plying the local classical waters.
Ralph Vaughan Williams' "Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis" capitalized on sharp contrasts of dynamics and an idiomatic flow of rich string sonority. Seated in a semicircle around the podium, the Avalon ensemble blended discreetly but distinctly with the tutti strings and the "echo" ensemble.
Gunther Schuller's 1988 Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra added another worthwhile discovery to the program. The distinguished American composer found novel ways to interweave the voices of the quartet members, collectively as well as individually, with the orchestra's mildly dissonant harmonies and sometimes spiky, sometimes pensively lyrical textures. Balancing the concertante group against the full orchestra is a formidable task here. Danzmayr managed it most effectively, and everyone dug into his and her part with palpable flair and commitment.
The Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra will conclude its season with concerts May 16 at Rialto Square Theatre in Joliet, and May 17 at Lincoln-Way North Performing Arts Center in Frankfort; 708-481-7774, ipomusic.org.