JAN BACH'S HORN CONCERTO DANCES WITH THE JOY OF LIVING AT ITS PREMIERE
John von Rhein, Music critic, Chicago Tribune, June 6, 1983
JAN BACH writes music to please. His Horn Concerto, which had its premiere by the Orchestra of Illinois Sunday afternoon at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, is anything but the gray, grimly cerebral kind of opus that almost every university composer in recent years seems to have cranked out, largely for the edification of his colleagues.
The new concerto aspires to little beyond being bright and entertaining and accessible to a general audience, and on its own conservative terms it succeeds.
To label the half-hour work "eclectic" would perhaps be an oversimplification. Like his namesake Johann Sebastian [no relation], Bach, a professor of music at Northern Illinois University in De Kalb, knowingly borrows from any number of nests. Jazz rears its perky head, and these pages of "Pop" rhythms tend to alternate with sections of muted lyricism that smack of Samuel Barber [at best] and the cliches of film music [at worst). There is not a gesture or device that is not familiar from some other musical context. But if Jan Bach's own voice tends to get lost in the parade of references, this is not to say he doesn't write effectively for the mellow-voiced brass instrument, as played here by Jonathan Boen, who heads the orchestra horn section. The soloist voices various fanfare-like mottos and skittering runs which are taken up in turn by the orchestra, here a friendly partner rather than an antagonist in the classical sense.
THE HORN Concerto was commissioned for the Orchestra of Illinois by Chicagoan Betty Bootjer Butler and Boen in memory of Butler's friend, Harold Cyril Skopin [The story behind the commission was outlined by Tribune writer Jeff Lyon in last Thursday's Tempo section.] The circumstances might have produced an extended elegy, but that was not what Bach intended. Only in the central movement does a somber quality assert itself. Otherwise, the music dances with the joy of living.
Near the end of the Rondo finale, for example, four other members of the orchestra's horn section stepped to the footlights, cutting loose in a mini-jam session with the soloist. While the hornists "cooked," the orchestra players encouraged them with rhythmic clapping . In lesser hands, this could easily have turned into gimmickry -- "music theater" at its worst. The performers were having such a good time, however, that the audience, too, found itself getting into the communal spirit of things.
The concerto, which seems at least 10 minutes too long to sustain its slender musical ideas, could have used more such flights of "spontaneous" fancy. But no matter: The music made its wonted effect, and the audience was quick to show its appreciation to the soloist, to conductor Guido Ajmone-Marsan, and to the orchestra for its skillful performance. Obviously delighted himself, the composer leaped onto the stage to join in the applause.