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Concerts with Sinfonia da Camera mark the return of the U of I’s Summer Piano Institute

Piano professor emeritus Ian Hobson is director of both the Summer Piano Institute and Sinfonia da Camera at the University of Illinois.

After a two-year hiatus due to the pandemic, the Summer Piano Institute has returned to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

The institute concludes with two concerts featuring piano concertos performed with Sinfonia da Camera.  Institute faculty Timothy Ehlen and Hie-Yon Choi will perform piano concertos by Florence Price and Brahms, in addition to the Sinfonia’s performance of Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture, Friday evening (July 29) at 7:30 P.M. at the Foellinger Great Hall of the U of I’s Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. And students chosen through a student piano concerto competition will perform works by Chopin, Prokofiev, Ravel and Liszt. The student concert takes place Saturday evening (July 30) at 7:30 at the university’s Smith Memorial Hall (805 S. Mathews Ave., Urbana). Admission is charged for both performances, but Saturday gala concerts by the Summer Piano Institute students at 2 and 4 P.M. at Smith Memorial Hall are free of charge.

U of I piano professor emeritus Ian Hobson is director of the Summer Piano Institute and Sinfonia da Camera. He discussed both the institute and the concerts in the following interview.

JM: Professor Hobson, you’ve been holding these Summer Piano Institutes at the U of I for for several years?

HOBSON: Oh, quite a long time, maybe 12 or 15 years. But the new component is with the orchestra, Sinfonia da Camera, which has come into the picture in the last five or six years as an accompanist to the international faculty artists that we have in concertos, and also for the students. And that’s a really special feature, in my opinion, is that we have a concert where the students who come to the institute can compete at the beginning of the week. And then we choose the winners. In this case, we have four to play with the orchestra on Saturday night. So it’s very exciting for them.

JM: We’re talking near the end of the institute. So everything has been going on since the beginning of the week.

HOBSON: Yeah, basically the week has been teaching every morning; we have five faculty members doing that; and each one gives a master class every day of the week. And so there’s been a great deal of teaching and learning going on. But now we come to the final concerts. Friday night is with faculty. Hie-Yon Choi is from Seoul National University. She came here with several students. And she’s playing Brahms’ first piano concerto with me conducting on Friday night. And also our own faculty colleague, Timothy Ehlen, is going to play the Piano Concerto in One Movement by Florence Price, who’s coming into lots of favor these days as an African American pioneer composer of the 20th century. And this piece is beautiful, very, very fun piece.

JM: I was looking up something about Florence Price, and understood that she was an accomplished pianist herself. Does it make a difference if the composer is an accomplished pianist or not as as to what they do in their composition?

HOBSON: Usually? Yeah. I mean, there are very few exceptions of composers who are not pianists writing a really gratifying piano concerto. I can’t even think of anybody offhand.

JM: It’s just that a pianist knows what the instrument can do.

HOBSON: What the instrument can do, what it feels like to play, how to distribute the notes between the hands, etc.

JM: This is the first Institute you’ve held since the pandemic

HOBSON: I believe so, yes.

JM: What’s it like getting everybody back together again?

HOBSON: Oh, it’s a wonderful feeling. It’s really a wonderful feeling. Especially this year. I’m so proud of the faculty that we have. We have Mr. (Antonio) Pompa-Baldi from the Cleveland Institute. Hie-Yon Choi, who’s playing the Brahms, is a major professor at Seoul National University. Boaz Sharon, who’s been at all my festivals is from Professor Boston. And Timothy Ehlen and myself are from here. And to have all these students from all over the world. You know, we had a tremendous outpouring of people who wanted to come. And I have a student who’s playing on Saturday night. He’s 13 and a half years old. And I only met him here because he has been studying with me on zoom from Washington, DC. And he is really quite something. He’s gonna play Chopin.

JM: So one of the pianists is 13. You’ve got I think, four pieces listed here. What’s the what’s the age range of everybody on that night?

HOBSON: Well, he’s the only young one. The others are college age or beyond. But we have wonderful, rare piano concertos. we have the Totentanz (Paraphrase on Dies irae, S.126), “the dance of death” by Liszt, which is a very exciting piece. And then we have the Ravel Concerto for the Left Hand, which is written for Paul Wittgenstein, who lost his right arm during World War One. And then we have the Prokofiev first piano concerto, which is a great virtuoso is a piece that pre coffee of wrote for himself to play when he was in college.

JM: It’s really a range of music here from the 19th to the 20th.

HOBSON: We listened to about 20 people playing auditions, and they all play different concertos from Mendelssohn, Liszt, Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, Mozart, you name it. And so we listened to all of them. And we chose these, these four.

JM: What stood out among the winners, what what made them the ones that you wanted to pick?

HOBSON: Well, it’s a very specific thing with concertos because you’re not playing alone, obviously, which means that you have to be very disciplined rhythmically. You have to be able to interact with the orchestra. And you have to be able to time things just right. And so people who know the pieces extremely well, even though they may not have played them ever before, but they’ve studied and they’re ready. That’s the main component, I must say, of a concerto.

JM: Now, the Institute has been going on all week with, I guess, one-on-one sessions with the students, as well as master classes. And these are not beginners.

HOBSON: No, no. There’s several high schools and pre-college people, I think we have about six or seven of those. And then we have people of all age ranges from from 18, up to 35, let’s say.

JM: So when you’re up at this skill level, what do you focus on with the students?

HOBSON: Well, every student is different. Every need is different, them working with everybody for 30 minutes, lessons. And it depends, they may want to work on technique, they may want to just play something to get used to the idea of performing it. There are all sorts of different ways you know, whether it’s Brahms or whether it’s Beethoven or Ravel.  We have to treat everybody individually, but give them something that they can gain from.

Jim Meadows

Jim Meadows

Jim Meadows has been covering local news for WILL Radio since 2000, with occasional periods as local host for Morning Edition and All Things Considered and a stint hosting WILL's old Focus talk show. He was previously a reporter at public radio station WCBU in Peoria.

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