"It was a bitterly cold and rainy night Sunday, one not made better by the mud, puddles and assorted construction mess audience members had to pick through to get to Pick-Staiger Hall in Evanston.
The hassles were worth it though for the Chicago Philharmonic quickly warmed things up with a terrific evening of music-making led by Leif Bjaland.
Bjaland is currently music director of the Waterbury (Connecticut) Symphony, and led the Sarasota Orchestra from 1997 to 2013. He conducted the Chicago Philharmonic in its early days when the ensemble was still known as Symphony II.
Bjaland showed himself a very impressive musician. A tall man, he cuts a charismatic podium figure, directing with sweeping yet precise gestures. Bjaland elicited nuanced yet consistently exciting results in Sunday’s varied program.
Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis is a notoriously difficult work to pull off and one feared the worst doing such a subtle atmospheric work in the bright, live-wire acoustic of Pick-Staiger.
Yet Bjaland and the Philharmonic strings handled this work with great sensitivity and idiomatic feeling. It’s impossible to recreate the evocative sonic effect of three distanced string choirs spaced far apart, originally intended for a cathedral setting. Yet Bjaland drew a wide dynamic range, directing the ebb and flow of this uber-English music with great skill. The Philharmonic strings responded, conveying the work’s somber melancholy in a rich-toned eloquent performance.
Listening to the opening minutes of Saint-Saens’ Morceau de concert, one wondered why this attractive and melodious harp concerto is so rarely performed. You soon understand why when the piece ends almost as quickly as it began. How many symphony orchestras are going to book a solo harpist for a work that lasts just ten minutes?
Marguerite Lynn Williams
Saint-Saens could still turn out superb music late in life, as shown by the Morceau, composed at age 83 in 1918, and as tuneful and immaculately crafted as any music written in his prime. Marguerite Lynn Williams, principal harp of the Lyric Opera Orchestra, was a first-class exponent, playing this music with seamless technical polish and lyric sensitivity. Bjaland and the orchestra provided equally colorful and dynamic support.
As popular as are his final two symphonies, for many, Dvorak’s Symphony No. 7 is his greatest work in the genre, as thematically rich and surely structured as the others yet with a tough unsentimental quality that wears better over time.
Bjaland is clearly in synch with this music and led a commanding and quite thrilling performance. There were some passing ensemble slips, yet the Chicago Philharmonic’s playing was largely polished, energized and highly responsive to Bjaland’s fast-moving baton.
Leif Bjaland is clearly a conductor we need to hear more of locally or in Evanston or downtown Chicago."
Chicago Classical Review