Saturday, April 30, 2011

Star Performances Light Up Elgin Symphony Concert at Prairie Center

Classic works in three movements, on a three-part program featuring three soloists: this is one way to describe the musical trifecta presented by the ESO this weekend. But "five stars" is another.  Returning guest artists Inon Barnatan, Chee-Yun, and Alisa Weilerstein are joined by conductor Kazem Abdullah and the ESO in an exceptional combination of talent rarely seen on any stage. Repeat performances are scheduled for 8:00 p.m. Saturday, April 30 and 3:30 p.m. Sunday, May 1 at the Hemmens in Elgin.

Every fan of the ESO should, at least once, see and hear them at Schaumburg's Prairie Center for the Arts. Less than half the size of the Hemmens (which itself is small by some standards), this venue is designed so that every seat is within 15 rows of its protruding stage, of which the orchestra uses every inch. The effect is like a private recital by the sort of artists who would have played in the palaces of royalty.

Beethoven's "Overture to Egmont, Op. 84" (1810) set the tone for the all-German program. It's the Beethoven we know and love, with tense thematic statements punctuated by complex inverted chords and tripled octaves. This man's music animates string players like no other, and entire sections could be seen digging into the notes, wrestling with it, as if to join the ancient Flemish resistance against Spain which was the subject of the piece. At other times, all forty could play so softly that the voice of a single reed could speak easily to the four hundred listeners.

The historic Isenheim Altarpiece, a series of sacred Renaissance panel paintings from the monastery of St. Anthony were the inspiration for Paul Hindemith's Symphony, Mathis der Mahler ("Matthias the Painter," 1933). Its three movements refer to three scenes from Matthias Grunewald's masterpiece: "Angelic Concert" (the Annunciation), "Entombment" (the Crucifixion), and "Temptation of St. Anthony." Mixing elements of the beautiful and the grotesque, the music features elegant flute solos and deep-throated brass in a depiction that combines quotes of sacred hymns alongside modern turns of phrase, music which eventually separated Hindemith from the Nazi regime and his native Germany. 

Maestro Kazem Abdullah is relaxed and confident, and his rapport with the musicians is evident in his interpretation of Hindemith's complex score. The backdrop of the Prairie Center stage, awash in colorful light, looked like a canvas upon which Abdullah painted with the sound, using fluent and expressive movement like brush strokes, filling the entire space with hue, texture and detail.

Highlighting the program was the return of three outstanding soloists in the performance of Beethoven's Triple Concerto (1804). Violinist Chee-Yun, cellist Alisa Weilerstein and pianist Inon Barnatan were warmly welcomed by an admiring audience as they took places close together on the small stage, and as the music started, this reviewer would not have wanted it any other way. The artists began an irresistible musical dialog of eye contact, body language, and of course the most eloquent playing. The two strings led throughout most of the work, exchanging soft staccatos and ebullient fortes in one moment, combining in graceful duets the next. The piano joined in for sections of triple sextuplets, and passages where the unaccompanied trio produced a sound that rivaled the orchestra. 

Throughout sections of unusually light material (for Beethoven), the artists easily moved through various tempos and meters backed by an attentive ensemble and a focused, capable conductor. Weilerstein, Barnatan and Chee-Yun each shared delightful personal glimpses in brief rubatos near the end of the third movement, putting their personal signature on an intimate and moving performance.

Like its debut in the home of Vienna's Prince Lobkowitz, complete with the sounds of breaking horsehairs, page turns, and piano pedals, the Triple Concerto was a delight to hear in the casual confines of the Prairie Center. And just as a certain ESO violinist once told me, "the audience always claps after the allegro."

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