Like a first kiss, or airplane flight, or view of the Grand Canyon, some sensations transform us by their newness. Such was the feeling at the Hemmens Sunday, as the Elgin Symphony Orchestra presented "Pictures at an Exhibition", dedicated to legendary ESO patrons Edward and Pearle Brody, with guest conductor Steven Jarvi.
In front of a capacity crowd Sunday, the ESO performed a brilliant series of works that paired creative risks with sheer musical excellence that drew unscripted exclamations from listeners throughout the hall.
Maurice Ravel's five-part Mother Goose suite (1912) showcased the ESO's intuitive treatment of an impressionist master's colorful orchestration. Exquisite woodwind solos and choreographed flashes of percussion decorated a rapidly shifting subtle palette of string textures. Combined with the projected subtitles quoting some of Ravel's own annotations from the score, the experience was as fresh as childhood -- or what it might be like for an audience of 1912 to see "silent" moving pictures for the first time.
ESO audiences love to hear from the conductor or the artists, and program commentary by Mr. Jarvi was well-received, as were remarks by ESO musicians and staff highlighting the considerable wealth of talent, training and instrumentation collected on stage, and a sincere appeal for sponsorships. All eyes were on the program booklet, reflecting a recent makeover with some excellent new content, subtly disguising the abundant space available for new advertisers (downtown restaurants, this means you!).
The program's top billing (and finale) was Ravel's well-known version (1922) of Modest Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition (1874), a suite of movements written in memory of 19th century Russian artist and architect Victor Hartmann. To complement the orchestra's learned yet sensuous performance, a series of thematically-linked images was projected overhead. Rather than distract or detract from the music, the video effectively added a stimulating layer of interpretation to the piece, which itself was inspired by a visual medium.
The highest point in this superb program was Ghost Ranch, a 2006 work by Michigan composer Michael Dougherty. Inspired by the scenery and artist's lore of the New Mexican desert that painter Georgia O'Keefe called home, the three-part piece transports you to an untamed American wilderness of extremes: at times light and dark, hot and cold, lonesome and overpowering. With one astonishing performance after another, individuals and sections brought forth mile after mile of changing sonic climates, flaunting wildly unorthodox playing techniques, free rhythmic episodes, abrupt seating changes and unwavering courage to follow Maestro Jarvi through a complex landscape of tempos and tonalities. The compositional language was clearly American, phrased in modern, but accessible idioms -- exactly the right balance for this perceptive but pragmatic audience, who whispered "wow!," "very unusual", and "this is wild!" throughout. It must have been a thrill for Mr. Dougherty, seated in the hall, to hear this piece played so well.
The orchestra sounded superb throughout the expansive program of 100 minutes, and received two standing ovations. Steven Jarvi's conducting was powerful, precise and genuine, showing a refinement well beyond his years; the admiration of the ensemble was evident.
And Elgin clearly loved this adventuresome program. Technology continues to change how -- and how directly -- ordinary people engage with the fine arts, and this orchestra, this concert hall, and this city are poised to become pioneers once again: of a whole new territory in art music.