The concert of the University of Illinois Symphony, led by Carolyn Watson, on Oct. 24 in Foellinger Great Hall had mainly bright, upbeat pieces. The first offering, “The Great Chaplin Suite,” was a tribute to one of the greatest comic actors of the first “silent” era of film history. The composer was Elena Roussanova, who was born in Moscow and educated at the Tchaikovsky Moscow Conservatory of Music. Ms. Roussanova was, in 2020, composer in residence with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and she is currently professor of composition at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. This Chaplin homage was premiered in Moscow in 2014, and it was first heard in this country in 2017 with the Omaha Symphony, Thomas Wilkins conducting.
The first movement, “Just kidding around,” sported a thumping beat, a blusey tune and a marimba solo. The second movement, “Sometimes Sad,” had a wistful trumpet solo and a lullaby-like section, and the final section, “Lights! Camera! Action!”, loudly expressed the excitement of Chaplinesque comedy with a jazzy beat and rousing gestures from the trumpets and trombones. Graduate student Natalia Raspopova drew a lively performance from the student orchestra and brought out the positive aspect of this high-spirited music.
The second work on the program was William Grant Still’s trail-blazing Symphony No. 1, “Afro-American.” For this work, and the balance of the program, Professor Carolyn Watson conducted the orchestra.
Still was born in 1895, and he was 35 when he wrote this seminal work. Of his musical objectives, he wrote, “I seek in the ‘Afro-American Symphony’ to portray not the higher type of colored American, but the sons of the soil, who still retain so many of the traits peculiar to their African forebears; who have not responded completely to the transforming effect of progress.” Still’s explanation suggested what seems to me to be a treasurable aspect of this music. It tends to remain on the quieter, more modest side of the symphonic spectrum. It avoids bombastic overstatement and flashy instrumental technical display. In portraying “The sons of the soil,” Still evoked not only country life in folksong style, but also the urban life of African Americans, the latter by the introduction of ragtime and jazz-inflected passages.
Conductor Watson led a nuanced reading, drawing, from the student players, music which ran the gamut from comedy in movement three (encored at its premier) to the pathos and stirring optimism of the finale. Each of Still’s four movements has a quotation from the poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar, and the fourth movement, “Aspiration,” was summed up by lines from Dunbar’s “Ode to Ethiopia”: “Be proud, my Race, in mind and soul,/Thy name is writ on Glory’s scroll/ In characters of fire ….”
At the end of this fine performance, Watson called for a solo bow for banjo player Jim Konsbruch, as well as solo players of oboe, bassoon, clarinet, flute and trumpet.
After intermission came a lively performance of George Gershwin’s 1928 “An American in Paris,” that musical evocation of “the roaring 20s,” this piece is so full of wonderful tunes and memorable turns and twists that, like a wild night in Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises,” it is no heavy criticism of Gershwin’s music to say that this piece stays around just a bit too long. But the UI Symphony members, under Watson’s clear and convincing direction, gave a refeshing, youthful retelling of Gershwin’s “nostalgie Amércaine.”
The concert concluded with Leonard Bernstein’s 1980 “Divertimento for String Orchestra.” This eight-movement piece was Bernstein’s contribution to the 100th birthday celebrations of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. This tongue-in-cheek work shows Bernstein’s wit, charm and flair for parodies. The opening movement, bearing the Elizabethan titles, “Sennets and Tuckets,” sounded to my ears like a parody of the overture to “Candide,” which was itself a parody. Brevity being the soul of wit, the movements were mercifully short, one entitled “Sphinxes” being 11 bars long. This work received a rousing and untiring playing by UI Symphony players, vigorously led by Watson. But, at that point in the evening, the champagne, for me, had slightly lost its fizz.