The Dame Myra Hess Memorial concerts mounted by the International Music Foundation (IMF) have been a staple of the Chicago cultural landscape since 1977, and the coronavirus pandemic has not changed that. But it has changed the method of presentation, with the effect that considerably more people can see and hear these concerts than ever before.
Since 1977 the concert series has been presented, free of charge, in Preston Bradley Hall in the downtown Chicago Cultural Center. Now the concerts are live-streamed for free from that location, and later archived. So you can view the two concerts I review here, as well as many others.
The concert series, which takes place at lunchtime on Wednesdays, typically offers performances of less than 45 minutes, allowing listeners to attend during their workday break. Last week’s concert featured Marie Tachouet, principal flute of the Lyric Opera Orchestra, and Beilin Han, an accomplished musician since childhood and an IMF regular who performs extensively as a collaborative pianist. Tachouet and Han opened their performance with selections from Six Pieces for Flute and Piano by Fikret Amirov, a Soviet-era composer from Azerbaijan.
Amirov’s music is exotic and alluring, often compared to that of Rimsky-Korsakov. Han’s introductory bars set the stage for a well-punctuated performance. Tachouet entered the fray with controlled rapid lines and beautifully rendered ornaments.
The pair were also superb together: The engaging syncopation and regular modal shifts of Amirov’s music were realized with flair and they navigated both the pounding fortissimos and gentle pianissimos with drama. They drew out the unusual colors of the music with kaleidoscopic ease and left you wanting more.
The short, sparkling gem “Summerland” by William Grant Still followed. Still was one of the 20th century’s great American composers, though he remains sadly underperformed by major orchestras, opera companies and chamber ensembles. Tachouet and Han’s performance begins to make amends for this neglect and will surely encourage listeners to seek out more of Still’s music, particularly now that we are seeing a performing renaissance of composers of color.
“Summerland” is the middle section of a three-part suite entitled “Three Visions” that Still wrote for piano and that was premiered by his wife, Verna Arvey, in 1936. The suite explores the fate of the soul after death, with Summerland representing heaven.
The interpretation by Tachouet and Han was languorous and warm, with the flute offering silky legato for the main, wistful melody. Tachouet’s high notes were silvery and lingered easily. Han’s piano was sensitive, contributing texture and depth.
The duo closed out the concert with Bohuslav Martinů’s Flute Sonata. The composition was written in 1945, during the Czech composer’s stay in the United States. He was on Cape Cod for a time and during that period nursed an injured whippoorwill back to health. This experience, and the regular sounds of other whippoorwills in his area, influenced the birdsong elements of the final movement.
Tachouet and Han created bracing, racing moments in the opening Allegro, and reveled in the syncopation. The duo knew how to draw out even the subtlest expressiveness from the music, and was achingly mournful during the melancholy center movement.
The closing Allegro poco moderato was joyful, with each artist given important elements of the music and rendering them with aplomb, including the fascinating representation of the whippoorwill as devised by Martinů. (The IMF provides good online programs and it is interesting to note that the photo they provide of Martinů shows this animal lover cuddling a charming black and white cat.)
The week before this Dame Myra Hess concert there was another splendid concert in the series, also featuring Han. On that occasion she joined forces with young cellist Noah Chen, the son of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s concertmaster, Robert Chen.
The younger Chen, a teenager who attends the Pre-College Division of the Juilliard School, is a talent to watch. He and Han gave a verdant sheen to Beethoven’s Sonata No. 4 in C Major, Op. 102, No. 1. They brought bouncing gallops and ruminating rumbles to the music. Their playing was clear and vivid, proving that while many have applied the appellation of “enigmatic” to this sonata, it is no puzzle to them.
The other work on their program was Cello Sonata No. 1 in E minor, Op. 38 by Brahms. Chen’s sound in the opening was deep and soulful, matched in gravity by Han’s piano. The cello sound remained clear as he moved throughout the range of the score, and while he might need occasionally to bring more force to his highest notes, his instincts are great. The fugal section was engrossing and put Chen’s technical skills on display. Both musicians brought delicacy as well as confidence to the performance.
The camerawork for these streams is relatively simple, but to the point. You get a far better view than 90 percent of the audience in a live performance in that venue. For the brief spoken elements introducing each work the camera shows the spectacular glass-domed ceiling of Preston Bradley Hall, the largest in the world made by Tiffany.
The Virtual Dame Myra Hess Memorial Concerts are streamed live on Wednesdays at 12:15 p.m. and can be viewed at IMFChicago.org, along with past performances.
On Nov. 11, violinist Masha Lakisova and pianist Lyudmila Lakisova will perform Mozart’s Sonata for Piano and Violin in C major, Chausson’s “Poeme”, Emilie Mayer’s Notturno, and Piazzolla’s “Nightclub 1960”. On Nov. 18, cellist Andrew Byun and pianist Victor Asunción will perform Schumann’s Adagio and Allegro, Germaine Tailleferre’s Berceuse, and Beethoven’s Cello Sonata in G Minor.