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Young cellist provides the highlight in mixed evening from Illinois Philharmonic

Joshua Roman
Chicago Classical Review

By Dennis Polkow

Continuing his first season as the new music director of the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra, 32-year old Austrian conductor David Danzmayr is creating a considerable amount of excitement as he attempts to take the 35-year old south suburban orchestra to new heights.

The end result of a worldwide search that yielded sixty candidates and seven finalists — each of whom conducted a concert over a two-year period — Danzmayr was the obvious favorite.

Having already conducted most of an impressive inaugural season made up of wide-ranging repertoire, Danzmayr’s familiarity and authority with Austro-Germanic repertoire was on display Saturday night at a packed Lincoln-Way North Center for the Performing Arts in Frankfort.

Weber’s Oberon Overture opened the program with tentative horn playing and some scrappy violin ensemble in the opening, which indicates the orchestra building that Danzmayr has ahead of him. Once the piece took flight, he led a performance of immense spirit and nuance.

The larger canvas of Brahms’ Second Symphony magnified the section problems heard in the Weber, but Danzmayr’s stalwart interpretation and the determination of the orchestra to realize that vision made this anything but a routine performance.

Momentum and a careful eye on larger structure were apparent throughout, with Danzmayr’s considerable attention to carefully sculpted dynamics and getting to the musical heart of each movement. The wind playing in the third movement was particularly poetic, the cellos in the poignant second movement quite introspective.

The clear highlight of the evening was a stellar performance of the Shostakovich First Cello Concerto with Joshua Roman as soloist.

A curious difference between the higher quality of the orchestral playing in the Shostakovich versus the Weber and Brahms were how many players actually kept their eye on Danzmayr: given the sudden shifts of the Shostakovich, players had little choice but to watch him but too many of the musicians were less attentive during the Weber overture and Brahms symphony with that lack of cohesion evident in the playing.

Apart from a hapless principal horn that was left in the dust during a duet, the orchestral playing was truly remarkable, Danzmayr attentive to the slightest nuances and soloists and sections rising to the occasion.

Of course, it helps considerably when you have a vibrant young soloist that can toss off this difficult concerto as if it were children’s play, which 29-year-old Joshua Roman did with aplomb. For those of us fortunate enough to have heard Rostropovich traverse this tour de force that was written for him, Roman provided a fascinating interpretative alternative.

Instead of the brooding, sweeping full-vibratoed Russian approach that Rostropovich and others have employed, Roman played with a full yet even tone with expressive touches of vibrato that were held back until climactic moments. His ability to play in the upper register with virtually flawless intonation was particularly inspiring but he also brought a rock-like energy to some of the piece’s ostinato sections.

A well-deserved standing ovation brought Roman back out to play the Sarabande from Bach’s solo Cello Suite No. 1 in G major with remarkable transparency and maturity for such a young soloist.