Skokie, Illinois (North Shore Center for the Performing Arts)
Gioacchino Rossini: Overture to “La Gazza Ladra”
Gustav Mahler: Songs of a Wayfarer
Pietro Mascagni: Cavalleria Rusticana
Bill McMurray (baritone [Wayfarer]), James Cornelison (Turiddu), Sarah Gartshore (Santuzza), Bill McMurray (Alfio),Veronica McHale (Mama Lucia), Jessye Wright (Lola)
Skokie Valley Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Francesco Milioto (Conductor and Music Director)
One of the great pleasures of living in a large metropolis is the emergence over the last decade of small civic orchestras who grace area performance venues with a level of musicianship that provides a cogent alternative to the starrier performances offered by more celebrated musical monoliths. Indeed, in a recent interview an official of Chicago’s venerated Ravinia Festival mentioned his mindfulness of these grassroots organizations when planning his seasons, and for an excellent reason – some of them are quite good, and give their better-known compatriots a run for their money. One such assemblage is the plucky Skokie Valley Symphony, who under Music Director Francesco Milioto (an assistant to James Conlon at Ravinia) offered a most enjoyable sampling of vocal and orchestral repertory spanning the 19th century German and Italian schools.
The Overture to Rossini’s La Gazza Ladra, featuring some particularly appealing playing from the brass and woodwinds, opened the evening on a cheerful note before matters settled in for the affective intensity of Mahler’s Wayfarer song cycle. Baritone Bill McMurray gave a solid account of this psycho-musical study of love and loss, intelligently limning the labile emotional shifts of "Ich hab’ ein glühend’ Messer" and providing some deftly floated pianissimos.
The evening’s centerpiece however was a concert performance of Mascagni’s perennial Cavalleria Rusticana. An atmospheric Prelude featured some lovely work from solo flute, after which tenor James Cornelison, remembered from his apprentice days at Lyric Opera’s Ryan Center, fielded an elegantly lyrical Siciliana. Cornelison also rendered Turridu’s rakishly narcissistic character quite well; all the more impressive as he came in at the eleventh hour to replace an ailing Francesco Petrozzi. Sarah Gartshore sang a soprano Santuzza, a role too often given to mezzos today, and offered an impressive resonance to text as well as a fair dose of vocal heft; one could hear her gleaming away above a very nicely shaped Easter ensemble. This intensely extrovert role however, with its vehement veristic demands, is perhaps not one a very young singer should frequently essay at this early stage of the game. McMurray’s highly-centered baritone is similarly a trifle light for Alfio, though both singers were appropriately at home within the constraints of the concert idiom. Veronica McHale’s ample mezzo served Mama Lucia’s music admirably, and Jessye Wright’s brightly-timbred mezzo made a delightful thing of Lola’s slutty little ditty without overdoing the femme fatale as so many do.
It must be said that Milioto is a lot of fun to watch on the podium, clearly inhabiting the music with his entire being. Ironically, the Sicilian-American conductor drew a more idiomatic musical response from the tortured Germanic intellectualism of the Mahler than the Italian pieces – Cavalleria’s opening scene especially could have used a bit more garlic and oregano, and the string section was admittedly a bit slippery throughout. The chorus dispatched their duties mellifluously however, and an appreciative ovation from the clearly enraptured audience pointedly crowned an afternoon of satisfying music-making in the Windy City’s North shore.
Mark Thomas Ketterson