A swift substitute saves the evening for University of Chicago Presents

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

One of the biggest problems a music presenter faces is what to do when an artist cancels at short notice. Amy Iwano, executive director of University of Chicago Presents, had just this problem when she learned only days before last Friday’s scheduled performance that violinist Isabelle Faust was ill and so that her recital with pianist Alexander Melnikov would not take place.

Iwano’s solution was to swiftly engage another duo, and Friday’s performance at Mandel Hall, while not what had been previously advertised, was a pleasing success.

Violinist Stefan Jackiw and pianist Anna Polonsky stepped in to fill the void created by Faust’s illness and they quickly found an appreciative audience.

They opened with Ravel’s “Tzigane,” an episodic ten minutes of virtuosic violin music drawing on gypsy-inspired themes. More romantic than impressionist, the music is a roller coaster ride which Jackiw ensured was thrilling, finding all the fire in the score and making it scorch. The piano part enters only well into the piece, but Polonsky did her part, offering fluidity that enhanced the violin’s drama. The pair displayed similar levels of muscular playing at the right points and Jackiw was particularly adept at drawing out the vivid dissonances.

This was followed by Lutoslawski’s short but remarkable 1985 “Partita.” The pair was energetic and expressive, showing attention to the contrasts. They caressed soft, mysterious phrases and let them grow into bold declarations. The concluding “Presto” was both bracing and powerful.

After the intermission, they returned to the stage for Kaija Saariaho’s “Nocturne in Memory of Witold Lutoslawski.” The Polish composer had been a mentor of the Finnish one, so she felt a composition in his honor was how she should remember him upon his death.

The Nocturne was played with both house lights and stage lights dimmed. The only significant light in the hall during the performance was that illuminating Jackiw’s music stand. The effect was wonderful.

The haunting music was ethereal and played with commitment and consummate skill. At the end, the compelling music simply disappeared into nothingness.

The duo’s last scheduled work was the popular Violin Sonata in A Major by Franck. They immediately gained traction in the opening movement with feathery, light playing by Polonsky and burnished sound from Jackiw. The violin went from gentle whispers to soaring, soulful sound. In the “Allegro,” Polonsky put great tension on display and the two performed with apt coordination.

The “Fantasia” movement was a delight, taking the audience into another world. The climactic final movement wasn’t entirely perfect: Jackiw chose to make his softest passages disappointingly thin and the two had some bumpy moments mid-movement. Yet the overall effect was satisfying and the audience seemed well-pleased.

For an encore, they played the final movement of Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time,” a piece composed under what would seem the most impossible of conditions: in the German Stalag VIII, a prisoner-of-war camp in Görlitz, where it also had its premiere, with the composer at the piano and Nazi officers listening in the front row.

Jackiw and Polonsky offered a credible and carefully drawn interpretation, but placing this work, which Alex Ross has described as depicting “the gentlest apocalypse imaginable” after the Violin Sonata was a blunder. It would have made good sense to hear it after the Saariaho. Instead, Jackiw and Polonsky took the audience from exuberant ecstasy with the Franck and then sent them home with Messiaen’s brooding ruminations on the end of the world.

The concert was dedicated to the memory of Andrew Patner, the multi-talented writer and broadcaster who died suddenly on Feb. 3.

Patner was born and raised in Hyde Park, attending local public schools and also singing with the Chicago Children’s Choir as well as working for that choir while in high school and later serving as a board member. He attended the University of Chicago and the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Early in his career he won the Peter Lisagor Award for his coverage of race and politics in Chicago magazine and published a biography of I.F. Stone, the independent radical journalist. He worked briefly as a staff reporter for the Wall Street Journal and had a stint at WBEZ, Chicago’s NPR affiliate.

He was knowledgeable across a wide swath, from theater and film to architecture and art, from dance to the Holocaust. He had a natural and penetrating understanding of politics, history and literature. But he will be best remembered for his writing about classical music and opera. He was Critic-at-Large for WFMT radio and their website, hosting “Critical Thinking” and offering commentaries under the title “Critic’s Choice.” He appeared regularly as a commentator on WTTW. Since 1991, he was a contributing critic for the Chicago Sun-Times.

Patner’s “perfect pitch” included his intelligent and always fair commentary and criticism of artists, his generosity to readers — sharing his insights with well-crafted writing — and his kindness to colleagues and the public alike. His charm and grace, his friendly manner, and his quick and easy smile were well known.

It is the way of things that other people will step in to fill the vacuum he has left. But Andrew Patner can never be replaced.