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Schubert Festival was a triumph

Opinion: Columns

February 6th, 2018 3:40 PM

Chicago Symphony and Lyric Opera musicians play Schubert's "Octet in F Major" at Unity Temple on Jan. 27. | Submitted

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By Ed McDevitt

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What better way to celebrate Austrian composer Franz Schubert's 221st birthday than to have a festival of Austrian-themed food and Schubert music in a magnificent venue? That's exactly what happened on Saturday, Jan. 27 at Unity Temple in Oak Park.

This reviewer was wondering how I would survive the 6-plus-hour program (which included the dinner about two-thirds of the way through). I more than survived it. I wanted even more. Never had I heard music so suited to a venue's acoustics. More than that, because nobody in the audience in that space is more than 40 feet away from the performers, it was is if the concert was a personal, private event. The facial expressions, the emotions of each player were plainly visible. I sat in a balcony overlooking the pianist in the "Trout" Quintet, and was able to read the music as he played it, a thrill all by itself.

As the program noted, in his short 31 years, Schubert wrote over 600 songs, making him one of the most prolific song composers in history. Oak Park soprano Christine Steyer and baritone Jeffrey Ray alternated in singing some of Schubert's lieder, many based on poems of Goethe and Schiller, with Jeffrey Panko, who clearly echoed the depth of feeling expressed by the singers, in total synchrony with them.

We were treated next to cello transcriptions of several lieder, performed by William Cernota, accompanied by Panko. Cernota, a member of the Lyric Opera Orchestra and frequent performer at Orchestra Hall, played selections from two of Schubert's most revered song cycles, Die schöne Müllerin ("The Miller's Fair Daughter") and Winterreise ("Winter Journey"), as well as one lied from the cycle written at the end of Schubert's life, Schwanengesang ("Swan Song"). The timbre and pitch of the cello echo the human voice, particularly the male voice, and his playing sang most beautifully.

We heard an electrifying performance of the 1824 Octet in F Major for clarinet, bassoon, horn, string quartet and double bass. The players, six of them from the Chicago Symphony, one from the Lyric Opera Orchestra and a preeminent chamber musician, were superbly matched. As an ensemble, they had clear communication and musical connection, bringing great excitement to a piece probably unfamiliar to most in the audience. The players — clarinetist Susan Warner, horn player David Griffin, bassoonist Dennis Michel, cellist Brant Taylor, first violin Silvia Kilcullen, second violin So-Young Bae, violist Youming Chen and double bassist Alexander Hanna — seemed to enjoy not only the opportunity to play together but also being able to play in a venue so acoustically rich. The standing ovation the performance received seemed to be for both the players and the revelation of the work itself.

Ms. Steyer joined her voice with Ms. Warner's clarinet and Matthew Hagle's piano accompaniment in the 1828 lied Der Hirt auf dem Felsen (The Shepherd on the Rock). Mr. Hagle then joined his piano with Ms. Kilcullen's violin, Mr. Taylor's cello, Mr. Chen's viola and Mr. Hanna's bass viol for a stunning performance of the famed "Trout" Quintet. I was struck first by the pure unit playing of the ensemble, and overall by the joy of the performers, which cast a lovely sheen over the quintet that cannot be conveyed in a recording. It's worth noting that the pianist's page turner was the son of our Octet horn player David Griffin and clarinetist Susan Warner, of Oak Park. Henry Griffin is himself no small musical talent.

Then came the dinner intermission. Concert patrons could go to restaurants that sponsored this event (Winberies, Il Vicolo or Cooper's Hawk) or have the separately-ticketed Austrian-themed dinner inside the Temple. Catered by Eastgate Café, with wine from Cooper's Hawk and beer from Kinslahger Brewery, the themed dinner menu included, among other things, palatschinken (Austrian sweet crêpes), apple strudel, mohnnudeln (poppy seed noodles) and traditional linzer cookies.

The excitement and quality of the concert received their best testimonial when most of the audience returned after almost 90 minutes to hear famed pianist Ralph Votapek, gold medalist in the first Van Cliburn International Piano Competition (1962). Mr. Votapek has appeared with numerous major orchestras over his long career, including 16 times as guest soloist with the Chicago Symphony. He played the complex and challenging 1828 Sonata in B-flat Major, one of Schubert's last major piano compositions.

Votapek then joined with his wife, Albertine, in the 1828 Fantasy in F Minor for piano four hands, a tricky piece requiring careful coordination, for which they received a long ovation. The Votapeks responded with an encore: the delightful Marche Caracteristique No. 2 (c. 1826), prompting another rousing ovation. The music folio from which they played both the Fantasy and the Marche was visibly old, held together with tape. When asked how old it was, Ralph Votapek replied, "Let's see. We've been married for 54 years and we played those pieces from that music at least a year before we got married."

Burt Andersen, chair of the team that spent two years organizing this concert, promises that it will be an annual affair, something we can gladly anticipate. Martha Swisher, music director of Unity Temple Unitarian Universalist Congregation, who hosted the concert, has had a Schubert Festival concert on her planning board for years, and was instrumental in pulling the team together and being its guide. It's a tribute to both of them that this concert was such a smash hit.

Ed McDevitt is a member of the Unity Temple Unitarian Universalist Congregation.  

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