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Märkl energizes "organic" Saint-Saëns Symphony 

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click to enlarge Cellist Zuill Bailey
  • Cellist Zuill Bailey

The last time we heard the Saint-Saëns Symphony No. 3 in C minor , Op. 78 ("Organ Symphony") on Oct. 23-24, 2009, we were introduced to the Circle Theatre's newly installed, revamped, refurbished Wurlitzer theater organ. It was then played by Martin Ellis (of the N. United Methodist Church) with the orchestra conducted by Thierry Fischer.

While Ellis returned Friday to repeat his excellent Wurlitzer-keyboard-and-pedal work, the guest podium artist this time was Jun Märkl, a conductor we always look forward to. He out-conducted Fischer in virtually all aspects of the popular late Romantic symphony, emblazoning it with energy, precision, balance and nuance.

Cast in two distinct parts, each one containing two connected movements, the symphony is dominated by a dies irae-like motto with double notes and some added chromatic steps not heard in the famous Medieval church chant some of Saint-Saëns' contemporaries liked to employ within their works. We first hear the organ as the first movement bridges into the hymn-like tune of the second movement, under girded by the organ's pedals.

Then, after the Scherzo-like third movement's bridge, both orchestra and organ opened the fourth movement, beginning with a Maestoso which was overwhelming with the purely sonic elements of the organ, coupling with this hall as no on-stage orchestra by itself ever has. A fugal tour-de-force leads to an ear shattering ending, with pounding timpani, and Märkl and Ellis's "forces" proclaiming "C major rules the day!" The audience response was quite predictable.

There were a few minor slips in the orchestra's precision in the so-called "trio" section of the third movement--the woodwinds off-track here and there. But not enough to compromise Märkl's vision of the work. The strings handled the double-note theme in the first movement with purposeful élan, especially considering the conductor's quite rapid tempo.

With cellist Zuill Bailey returning for the third time to the ISO, we've come to realize that, among other purposes, it was for a commercial recording on the Telarc label, the first two having already been released. This time, however, Bailey opened the concert with two disparate works: Schelomo, Hebraic Rhapsody for Cello and Orchestra (1915) by Swiss composer Ernest Bloch, and the U.S. debut of the 'Cello Concerto' by Nico Muhly (b. 1981 in Vermont).

About as "Jewish" sounding as any music gets, Schelomo recalls a "klezmer" concert a few years ago, the word indicating Jewish music with an element of jazz. This is also Bloch's most popular work and is very compelling in its bluesy inclinations and vivid orchestration. Bailey's solo part was as well rendered as consistent with his locally proven artistry, especially his rich, evenly centered tone.

As Muhly exhibited a fast-talking, exaggerated hand-gesturing persona in the pre-concert Words on Music, his Cello Concerto showed a tendency to reach out to the far extensions of modern musical ideas--to being original without merely being dissonant, as the contemporary style is often thought of. Bailey's cello had a more reserved part than in the Bloch work, sometimes disappearing for stretches.

An interesting use of a muted trumpet took over dominance at one point in the second movement. While the first two movements were joined at the hip, with the cello weaving a line in and around punctuated chords, the final movement -- Quarter note = 174 -- became a further study in minimalism. Will Muhly's Cello Concerto become a repertoire piece? I have no idea; critical judgment of a work at first hearing has tended to be historically inaccurate. Hilbert Circle Theatre; Jan. 24-26

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