This is a time of transition for several of Chicago's suburban orchestras. The Elgin Symphony Orchestra has been patiently auditioning a host of guest conductors to find a replacement for Robert Hanson, who resigned in June, 2011 after 37 years as music director. And the Northwest Symphony Orchestra, which is based in Des Plaines, is saying goodbye to its music director, Paul Vermel, at the end of the present season, his 19th as its artistic chief.
The Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra is somewhat ahead of the curve, having installed a new music director, David Danzmayr, in time to launch the orchestra's 35th season last weekend at Lincoln-Way North Performing Arts Center in south suburban Frankfort. He succeeded Carmon DeLeone, who retired from the orchestra at the end of last season.
The gifted, 32-year-old Austrian conductor brings solid European experience to his post, including three years as assistant conductor of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. He inherited a good orchestra and clearly intends to make the Chicago southland's largest performing arts organization even better. The musical yield at Saturday's season opener suggested he is already on his way and confirmed the wisdom of the orchestra's choice.
Tchaikovsky's music has served as a calling card for many a maestro, but few have used it to galvanize orchestral players as impressively, their first time out of the box, as Danzmayr did on this occasion. The Russian composer's Fifth Symphony proved to be a fine means of displaying his command and the IPO's sturdy corporate mettle.
Building brooding atmosphere from the portentous introduction through the main body of the opening movement, Danzmayr had his strings and brass digging into their instruments with a dark-toned intensity that underscored the Slavic fatefulness of the music. His vigorous and decisive gestures left no doubt as to his natural command of the music or of his musicians.
The well-integrated IPO woodwinds rose to the fore in the heart-on-sleeve lyricism of the slow movement, complete with a supple horn solo from John Fairfield. The third-movement waltz was graceful and lilting. Danzmayr is among the few conductors who properly observe the mezzo-forte (medium loud) marking at the opening of the finale. The movement swept to the double bar in a white heat of collective concentration.
American music is high among Danzmayr's musical priorities at the IPO. And so he began with Walter Piston's "The Incredible Flutist" ballet suite (1938), a charming piece of program music the Chicago Symphony hasn't touched in years. His reading dragged a bit at times, although the players had great fun shouting, barking and high-fiving their way through the circus march section.
Composed just a year after the Piston, Joaquin Rodrigo's "Concierto de Aranjuez" proved a congenial solo vehicle for the talented young Croatian guitarist Ana Vidovic. Every guitarist plays this tunefully nostalgic tribute to Old Spain, but few make more of its dancing rhythms or bring out more of the dreamy, improvisatory haze of the slow movement. Ricardo Castaneda did well with the famous English horn solo. Too bad rude audience behavior turned this raptly beautiful Adagio into a duet for coughers and guitar.
Clearly Danzmayr has what it takes to make the Illinois Philharmonic a major player among the orchestras that are providing the greater Chicago area with such a rich abundance of symphonic music. He and the IPO may be just the ticket to lure classical music buffs away from their customary downtown-Chicago migration patterns.
The Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra subscription season continues Jan. 19, Feb. 16-1,. March 23 and May 11; 708-481-7774, ipomusic.org.
Music in the Loft
Another big anniversary was celebrated over the weekend: the 20th anniversary of the founding of the Music in the Loft concert series by the late Fredda Hyman. The founder-director, who died in December 2011, championed up-and-coming chamber musicians and composers in performances given in the loft home she shared with husband Sidney Hyman on the Near West Side.
The series returned to its original site for a concert that included the premiere of "Elegy" for flute, viola and harp, a work written in Fredda Hyman's memory by Chicagoan Lita Grier, the season's composer-in-residence.
Grier wanted to create a work that would, in her words, "capture Fredda's spirit, strength, delicacy and charm." It's not hard to hear those qualities in this wistfully lyrical piece, which had CSO principal flutist Mathieu Dufour and violist Roger Chase soaring and intertwining over the broken chords of harpist Nuiko Wadden's accompaniment. A fragment of "Juliet's Death," from Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet," turns up about midway through the 13-minute work – a reference to the dedicatee's years as a dancer with American Ballet Theatre.
Some fuzzy viola intonation failed to mar the touching effect of Grier's homage, which shared the program with Arnold Bax's "Phantasy Sonata," Toru Takemitsu's "And Then I Knew 'Twas Wind" and Debussy's Sonata for flute, viola and harp.
The season's remaining concerts take place in the series' new home, Suite 801 of the Fine Arts Building, 410 S. Michigan Ave. Dates are Jan. 20, March 10 and April 7; 312-919-5030, musicintheloft.org.