The students from the Music Institute of Chicago’s Academy showed off their talent on Saturday night in a performance celebrating the academy’s 10 years of training in musical excellence. The academy’s string players were joined by wind, brass, and percussion players affiliated with the Institute in a lively display of youthful enthusiasm and vigor.
In 2006 the Music Institute of Chicago started the Academy for those especially gifted, high-school age piano and string players intending to pursue a career in music. This concert, which took place at the Nichols Concert Hall in Evanston, allowed the academy and the institute to display their successes, both present and past. This year’s graduating class was introduced, and the list of music schools and colleges they will be attending is impressive: Julliard, the New England Conservatory of Music, the Cleveland Institute of Music, the Shepard School of Music at Rice University, and other institutions of high musical pedigree. Also introduced were several academy alumnae who had gone on to similarly impressive destinations and eventual performance careers.
As memorable as the accolades were, it was music making that made Saturday evening so special. Academy Director James Setapen conducted the Academy Chamber Orchestra in the first half of the program, which opened with Estonian composer Arvo Paert’s Fratres for string orchestra and percussion. This eerie work offered an ideal vehicle for each orchestra section to shine. Underpinning Fratres is a continuous bass drone overlayed by a tune repeated nine times, each heralded by six beats on a bass drum and wood block. The work opened with the violins playing quiet, but crisp tones. Each time the tune was repeated, more strings were added, ultimately reaching a sharp crescendo, after which things receded back to the beginning.
Up next was Beethoven’s youthful Symphony No. 1 in C-major, Op. 21, a piece tailor-made for the Academy Chamber Orchestra’s energy and exuberance. Shortly after completing his first two symphonies, Beethoven reshaped the symphony form in revolutionary ways, but his first go at it only hinted at the extraordinary things to come. Here, Beethoven contented himself with musical jokes, starting with the first two notes, which are more typical of an ending than a beginning. The Academy Chamber Orchestra effectively played up these bits of humor, especially in the finale, which Beethoven preluded with several false starts.
While more momentous works would shortly follow, even at this early stage Beethoven demonstrated characteristics that would become his hallmarks. First was an unmatched prowess in writing for an orchestra, especially in the way he wove the winds, horns, and percussion into the mix. The Academy’s string players comingled deftly with the additional musicians to create a remarkably balanced and even sound. The interplay between the various sections showed through clearly.
Second was Beethoven’s penchant for the loud and the boisterous; for good reason he was known as the thunderer. The Academy Chamber Orchestra’s uncapped energy highlighted the many bounding passages and internal climaxes in Beethoven’s first symphony. It was a great example of thoughtful programming playing into an ensemble’s strengths.
The second half of Saturday’s concert was a complete contrast to the first. Conducted by Roland Vamos, it featured one of Mozart’s most elegant and refined works, the Symphonia Concertante for violin and viola in E-flat major, K. 364. Being Mozart’s sixth and final concerto for stringed instruments, it was written just prior to his move to Vienna when his compositional maturity had fully emerged, a fact reflected in the work’s absolute genius.
It would also be destined to be the only concerto by a top tier composer for the viola, notwithstanding the fact that many of those same composers were accomplished viola players. By pairing the dark-hued viola with the bright and sunny violin, Mozart created a unique tonal texture that came forth whenever the viola and violin played together, especially in unison. It was fascinating to hear this texture split into constituent parts as the viola and violin traded melodies back and forth, only to reemerge when the two instruments joined together once again.
Essential ingredients for this magical affect are a pair of excellent soloists, and two were at hand on Saturday night: violist Matthew Lipman, a 2010 alumnus of the Academy, and violinist Rachel Barton Pine, an alumna and longtime supporter of the Institute. In 2014 Lipman and Pine collaborated in a stellar recording of the Symphonia Concertante with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields Orchestra conducted by Sir Neville Mariner. Saturday night was their first, actual live performance of the work, an astonishing fact given how well they blended; they succeeded in reproducing Mozart’s tonal texture from the very beginning.
The work opened with the Academy Chamber Orchestra skillfully playing through the majestic themes. Of particular interest was the way Mozart passed the melody between the oboes and horns, foreshadowing the increased prominence winds and brass would play in Mozart’s later piano concertos. In the slow, second movement, Mozart descended down to the tense and gloomy key of c-minor, which was particularly well suited for the melancholic texture of the viola/violin combo.
A general rule of thumb is that, whenever Mozart entered the realm of tension, he always exited with something light and fluffy, and the finale was true to form. Like the opening movement, the finale also featured interplay between the oboes and horns. Lipman and Pine excelled in this movement, even managing to hold the whole thing together when the orchestra momentarily seemed to lose its bearings. Occasional glitches aside, the overall affect was breathtaking.
Following the well-deserved standing ovation, Lipman and Pine encored with a marvelous rendition of the Handel-Halvorson Passacaglia in g-minor. Pine announced the establishment of the Roland and Almita Vamos Scholarship fund, to which she and her husband had generously donated. For more information about the Music Institute of Chicago and its Academy, check out https://www.musicinst.org.