Review Splendid performance showcases the new Mandel Hall

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

Mandel Hall has a spruced up new look: new carpet, paint, stenciling, seats, acoustical clouds and sprinkler system. The space has the same elegant feel as before, now accentuated with a new brightness and shine. It’s a splendid improvement on an already splendid performance space.

It was in this refurbished hall that cellist Steven Isserlis and pianist Kirill Gerstein performed to an appreciative Hyde Park audience earlier this month.

They opened with Bartok’s First Rhapsody for Cello and Piano, both musicians immediately putting on show their flexibility, notably in their pleasing elasticity in the treatment of rhythm.

This was followed by Busoni’s “Kultaselle, Ten Short Variations on a Finnish Folksong.” Busoni studied in Helsinki (during which time he met Sibelius, as well as his future wife). This short work was composed during his time in Finland and displays nice variety in the variations. Isserlis and Gerstein made the main theme charming and built up to a bold conclusion.

Liszt was represented by two pieces on the program: “Romance Oubilée” and “Die Zelle in Nonnenwerth”. The players carefully chewed over the music, drawing out both the prettiness as well as underlining the bittersweet moments.

Two sonatas for cello and piano by Brahms — the Op. 38 in E minor and the Op. 99 in F major — allowed them to put their superb musicianship on display. The lush romantic music was rendered with astounding liquidity. Isserlis had commanding sound with the rumbling ruminative sections, and both players showed how dramatic a quiet whisper can be. Particularly enjoyable was their ability to frolic through the rumbustious sections.

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After the Chicago Theological Seminary (CTS) building at 5757 S. Woodlawn Ave. was sold to the University of Chicago, fans of organ music wondered what would happen to the Reneker Organ. Since the building will be used by the university’s economics department, it seemed unlikely that the organ could remain there.

The solution to this problem was an excellent one. The organ was carefully dismantled, each piece painstakingly recorded and labeled. Then the pieces were moved to Bond Chapel on the U. of C. campus, and finally it was re-assembled there.

Earlier this month, on the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Betty C. Reneker, a celebration of the installation of the organ in Bond Chapel was held with the organ the focus of this Sunday afternoon event. The organ, custom-built by Karl Wilhelm Inc., had originally been commissioned by the CTS to honor Betty Reneker and her husband Robert. But the recital and celebration proved that the instrument has a good and fitting new home. It will find both liturgical and concert use in the years to come.

The installation program was witnessed by a large number of Reneker family members, and they as well as the rest of the audience heard remarks from Elizabeth Davenport, dean of Rockefeller Chapel, who predicted that it was the “beginning of a new thread of memories.” Other speakers offering brief remarks were Jeffrey Weiler, president of the firm that moved the organ, Lawrence Zbikowski, music department chair and Margaret M. Mitchell, dean of the Divinity School.

But the star of the event was the Reneker organ. Organist Thomas Weisflog kicked things off with Giovanni Battista Martini’s Toccata per il Deo Gratias. It was pert and perky, a big and exciting way to begin things.

Thomas Wikman, who for years gave recitals on this organ when it was housed in the CTS, performed a couple of works with his usual flair. First he gave a masterful rendition of Bach’s Piéce d’orgue, BWV 572, followed by Girolamo Cavazzoni’s Canzon sopra Il est bel et bon, which he made inspiring.

Organist Walter Whitehouse was the third organist that afternoon, and he held the audience’s attention with attractive works by Nicolas de Grigny, Pierre Camonin, and Marc-Antoine Charpenier.

Sandwiched between the organ solo works were two small musical sections which showed how the organ sounds when played in combination with other musicians. These were the least satisfying moments of the concert. The gamba consort was particularly hard to hear, even with Weisflog playing the organ as quietly as possible. Countertenor Lon Ellenberger was a slightly better match. But in the end, in an event to celebrate the organ it seemed odd to include works that barely made use of it.

The final musical selections were organ solos performed with excitement by Weisflog. “Française” (Suite Française) by Jean Langlais, “Komm, heiliger Geist, Herre Gott,” BWV 651 by Bach, and “Rondeau” by Jean-Joseph Mouret resounded beautifully throughout Bond Chapel.

The event was capped off by a lovely reception in Swift Hall.