Smile Politely

A look ahead at Krannert Center’s musical offerings this November

Slowly, the world we used to know is returning to Urbana’s Krannert Center and that can only be good news for a community that feels this iconic performing arts center is a major cornerstone of quality of life in this area.

The beginning and end of November brings back the Jupiter Quartet, live musical theater, and another concert of the U. of I. Symphony.  November 4th, marks the return to the stage of the Foellinger Great Hall of the Jupiter Quartet, the quartet-in-residence of the University of Illinois.

Their November 4th program is a sampling of 125 years of American chamber music that will be a bit unfamiliar even to a classical enthusiast. Guest artist, pianist Gloria Chien, will join the Jupiter in Amy Beach’s Piano Quintet. Here is a composer who was once rather popular in concert halls, was forgotten, and is now experiencing a major comeback.  Mrs. H. H. A. Beach  (1867-1944) as she was known professionally in her day, broke barriers for women in the world of classical music as a soloist and as a composer with her Gaelic Symphony of 1893. In the last 25 years, her return to concert programs has welcomed back a pioneer of American music. Check websites that sell recordings, and you will find she is anything but forgotten in the recording studio as several recordings of her many works are available.

Perhaps, even more of a pioneer for women in the world of classical music was Florence Price (1887-1953).  This Hot Springs, Arkansas native was the first African-American woman to compose a symphony that was performed by a major symphony orchestra. Her 1933 symphony was performed by no less of an ensemble than the Chicago Symphony. The recording industry has recently caught up to this neglected American composer, and on November 4th, the Jupiter Quartet will perform her “Five Folk Songs in Counterpoint.” Joan Tower’s (born 1938) “In Memory” rounds out the program and is half dedicated to women composers.

The remaining works on the program feature some more familiar names — Charles Ives, John Adams. William Bolcom and George Walker, the first African-American composer to receive the Pulitzer Prize in music. I asked first First Violinist, Nelson Lee, to share some thoughts about Jupiter and its return to Krannert.

Smile Politely: What has the Jupiter Quartet done during the pandemic influenced year and half?

Nelson Lee: We were lucky in that we formed a quartet “bubble” early in the pandemic so that we could continue to rehearse and perform (and have our kids play together). We recorded quite a few videos that we sent to presenters for them to stream to their audiences. This included a commissioning project that we had embarked on before the pandemic. The composer, Michi Wianko, still managed to finish the piece and we did a virtual premier in August of 2020. We actually did get to perform her piece for the festival that was the primary supporter of the project:  Bay Chamber Concerts in Lockport, Maine. Krannert was actually a co-commissioner of the project as well and we will perform Michi’s piece in February, 2022 in the Great Hall.

SP: After a year and a half, how does it feel to be back in Krannert’s Great Hall?

Lee: We are super excited about our upcoming performance in Krannert’s Great Hall.  During the height of the pandemic, we did continue performing but primarily in front of a video camera and one or two sound engineers.  It is just not the same experience as playing in front of a live audience. You don’t feel the energy of the people in the room and the sense that the sound is being created and heard in that moment. It creates a different mindset for us as performers and we all have missed the feeling of being in the same space with the audience. 

SP: I noticed you have a CD with the Jasper Quartet; tell us about that recording.

Lee: Yes, we just released a CD of octets in collaboration with the Jasper Quartet. The disc includes the Mendelssohn Octet, Osvaldo Golijov’s “Last Round” (with bassist Michael Cameron), and Dan Visconti’s “Eternal Breath.” It was a great opportunity to collaborate with another quartet closely linked to our group. J. Freivogel, the first violinist of the Jasper Quartet, is the younger brother of Meg and Liz Freivogel in our quartet, so it was quite a family affair! Visconti’s “Eternal Breath” is actually a piece that was commissioned by Margie and Bill Freivogel (parents of J., Meg and Liz). I think this piece captures the feeling of a family growing and breathing as one unit.

The University of Illinois’ Lyric Opera company will perform “Fun Home” from November 4-6. This 2013-15 show by Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori won five Tony Awards including Best Musical. It is no coincidence that Lisa Kron is the author of the book and lyrics to this musical as the plot progression is carefully integrated into a smooth union of both of those elements. This makes “Fun Home” an ideal undertaking for an opera company, and add to that the edgy elements of this bitter sweet story from the graphic novel by Alison Bechdel, and you have a lot of the classic elements of opera in a modern context. Directors Sarah Wigley and Julie Jordan Gunn will stage this modern classic in the Tryon Festival Theatre, and U of I students can experience this award winning show for a modest $10.

As students get ready to leave for Thanksgiving break, the University of Illinois Symphony Orchestra, under William Eddins’ direction, will perform at the Foellinger Great Hall on November 19th. My enthusiasm for this terrific ensemble was reflected in an earlier review and I can only look forward to hearing their wonderful sounds again. This time they take on the late American composer Christopher Rouse’s “Bump,” along with more recognizable works by Bartok (Piano Concerto #3 with Cacie Wilhoft as soloist) and Berlioz’s “Symphony Fantastique.”

All performances are at 7.30 p.m., except for the 2 p.m. Saturday matinee of “Fun Home”. Masks are still required, but stay tuned on that. Tickets must be purchased on-line through The Stage 5 bar in the Krannert Lobby offers drinks and some snacks, except on Saturday, but no Intermezzo food offerings will be available in the immediate future past 3 p.m. on weekdays.

Top image courtesy of the Jupiter Quartet.

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