Peoria Symphony Celebrates Spring
In Italy During January In Illinois
Outside Grace Presbyterian Church on Saturday night, Jan. 17, winter held sway.
Dirty snowbanks and random ice-patches waited to waylay wary walkers bound for Baroque at the Peoria Symphony Orchestra’s “Festa Italiana” concert.
Inside, however, all was well and warm, Italy in Illinois, “Primavera” in Peoria.
Featuring five selections from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries, this all-Italian feast of the ears benefitted from the superb sound, seating, and sightlines of the posh Presbyterian auditorium.
Illuminated screens flashed titles of the current movement so only one premature ejaculation of applause occurred. From the lighting to the loos, the venue was majestic.
But without the music, all this would be merely gravy.
Conductor George Stelluto and his sharply-honed fine team of musicians brought home the beef and bacon.
Tomaso Albinoni’s “Concerto San Marco,” which opened the evening, featured Aaron Romm’s trumpet swaddled in strings. The twelve-minute performance dazzled like the bright lights reflecting off the brass horn. Exuberant and exciting, it began the symphonic night splendidly.
Oboes, bassoons, and other woodwinds joined the strings for the second selection, Nino Rota’s 1966 “Concerto for Trombone and Orchestra.” Mark Babbitt, who teaches trombone at Illinois State University, soloed superbly, but the Rota score was the least compelling of the five works heard. Rota had written scores for sixteen of Federico Fellini’s films as well as Francis Ford Coppola’s first two Godfather movies, and the braggadocious bravado of this work seemed more suited to the cinema multiplex than the concert hall.
Well-played it was, however, and Babbitt deserved both the bouquet and the kiss bestowed on him by Kate Lewis, his wife and the PSO’s principal violist.
Antonio Vivaldi’s “Concerto for Flute in F major, Op. 10, No.1” concluded the first half of the evening. A Venetian like Albinoni, Vivaldi subtitled this “la tempesta di mare” [the storm at sea] and the fluttering flute sounded like a gale blowing in. The string section shone.
My wife Jo, a self-described “Vivaldi slut,” liked this most. My view: Stelluto and the symphony saved their best for the last.
Former Illinois Central College journalism and student newspaper staffer Bill Sellers said:
“A fascinating concert. The first notes of clarity executed on the trumpet established that this was going to be a night of delicate precision defined by virtuoso performances. In all three pieces [of the first half performances], an individual member of the orchestra was the featured soloist. All are world-class musicians, trumpet, trombone and flute. Each piece established or built upon themes and modal patterns that emerged as a total and well-balanced performance well suited and perhaps best suited for the more delicate acoustic character of Grace Presbyterian Church rather than the Civic Center Theater.”
After the coffee, cookies, and conversation at intermission, we returned for Angelo Corelli and Ottorino Respighi masterpieces.
Corelli’s five-movement “Concerto Grosso in D Major, Op. 1, No. 6,” published posthumously in 1714, succeeded on the strength of the string section. Led by concertmaster Marcia Henry Liebenow, this concerto, written by a violinist for violinists, violas, cellos, and basses, took wings on strings. Carol Wessler’s harpsichord colored the tones nicely.
The best offering came next. The PSO’s first-ever performance of “Trittico Boticelliana” (“Three Botticelli Paintings”) first performed in 1928. Having admired and loved these paintings since even before we saw them in Florence’s Uffizi Gallery in 2004, I was ready to enjoy these musical incarnations.
I was exalted, not disappointed, by this trilogy.
Two Greek pagan works bookended the Christian Epiphany’s worship of the baby Jesus in Bethlehem by the three Magi from the east.
“La Primavera” (“Spring”) depicts Venus, the Roman goddess of love, surrounded by other mythological characters, including her son Cupid, the Three Graces, and Flora, goddess of springtime. Horns and strings crowed and twittered as the equinox came early.
Jo commented that “La Primavera” sounded like a “Cinemascope motion picture soundtrack.” If so, make it a double feature and play it again, maestro Stelluto and company.
“The Adoration Of The Magi,” the second segment, melded the Advent hymn “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” into its melody. Oboe, violin, and bassoon soloes asserted the Nativity notions of worship and hope.
Finally, “La Nascita De Venere” (“The Birth Of Venus”) evoked the creation of the goddess in the famous masterwork dubbed “Venus On The Half Shell” by Peoria science fiction writer Philip Jose Farmer.
Botticelli reportedly based this nearly nude immortal iconic idol image on a mistress of one of his de Medici patrons. In the projected illustration, she hardly seemed ashamed of being naked in church.
The lush, liquid music with its sea-like shimmering swelled romantically until fading softly as a sunset.
In all, “Festa Italiana” warmed a winter night with summer sunshine.
The Peoria Symphony Orchestra will return to Grace Presbyterian Church on March 14 with “Visions Of Vienna,” featuring Antonio Salieri’s “La Grotta Di Trofonio,” Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “Sinfonia Concertante,” and Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 2.”
By then, it may be truly spring.
If you missed this performance or wish to savor it again, it will be broadcast on WCBUHD2 on Wednesday, March 4 at 8 p.m. and on WCBU89.9 at 7 p.m. on Sunday, March 8.
Thanks to J. Michael Allsen for his enlightening program notes.