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Classical comfort food: Brahms and Beethoven headline Illinois Symphony’s ‘Breathtaking Beauty’

A view from behind the violin section of a man conducting an orchestra. To the left of the violin players is a harpist. Violists are seen through the strings of the harp with woodwinds and brass in the distance.
David Fitch
Illinois Symphony Orchestra
Maestro Vince Lee, seen here conducting the Illinois Symphony in 2018, returns to lead a program called "Breathtaking Beauty" Saturday at Illinois State University.

Maestro Vince Lee is the latest in this season’s slate of guest conductors while the Illinois Symphony Orchestra is without a music director since Ken Lam’s departure last spring. Lee leads the orchestra Saturday in a program called “Breathtaking Beauty” that highlights three icons of classical music.

This is Lee’s second guest spot with the Illinois Symphony, last visiting four years ago as part of a John Williams program. While he enjoys contemporary and popular works, Saturday’s concert at Illinois State University is planted firmly in the classics.

“Basically, Ken (Lam) got a job and had to leave last minute, and that was the program,” said Lee, laughing. Though handed a program he didn’t choose — Brahms’ first symphony and Beethoven’s “Piano Concerto No. 4” as its anchors — Lee feels it’s an ideal next step for those who’ve just begun to dabble with classical music.

“This program is the home-cooked, steak and potatoes,” he said. “It’s really the best comfort food.”

With a third work, Jacques Ibert’s 1956 “Hommage a Mozart,” the evening creates a chronology of three generations of canonical composers.

Unlike Mozart, who published more than 40 symphonies (the first at age 8), Brahms took 20 years to write “Symphony No. 1” that will be performed during Saturday’s 7:30 p.m. concert.

“Brahms was this hopeless romantic,” Lee said. He met his idols, Robert and Clara Schumann, in his 20s, at which time the former Schumann declared Brahms to be Beethoven’s successor to the German-speaking world.

“This is somebody who was a little neurotic and sometimes had crippling self-doubt,” Lee said about Brahms. “He likely destroyed more music than he composed. It wasn’t until his 40s that he wrote this first symphony.”

In the previous generation, Beethoven was viewed as an iconoclast who we now recognize as forming a bridge between the Classical and Romantic periods — indeed, by some, he’s viewed as belonging to an era all by himself.

In her first collaboration with Lee, pianist Zhang Zuo, known as Zee Zee, plays Beethoven's “Piano Concerto No. 4,” which was written during the particularly eclectic middle period of Beethoven’s career.

“This concerto premiered in a private concert with his fourth symphony,” Lee said. “The public premiere was this mega-concert which had the fourth piano concerto, his 'Choral Fantasy,' and his fifth and sixth symphonies. If you had to pick two symphonies that couldn’t be more different, it would be the fifth and sixth.”

Lee likened Beethoven to the band U2: “You look at their catalog from the ‘70s to today, there is a very clear arc in terms of the music that they write.”

What makes it all Beethoven? Lee said the key link connecting works of this period in his career is the harmonic structure. While you can recognize chord progressions in the work, “Piano Concerto No. 4” is distinct in its subtlety — particularly in the beginning.

“It’s one of the only piano concertos to begin with just the piano playing,” Lee said.

Ibert, Brahms, and Beethoven’s “Piano Concerto No. 4” featuring soloist Zee Zee will play at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Illinois State University Center for Performing Arts, 351 S. School St. Tickets and more information at ilsymphony.org.

Lauren Warnecke is a reporter at WGLT. You can reach Lauren at lewarne@ilstu.edu.
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