Sunday, April 3, 2011

Contrasting Climates Featured in Elgin Symphony Concert

Audiences were transported across a variety of musical landscapes and languages this weekend as the Elgin Symphony Orchestra presented a series of picturesque works, enlivened by guest artist performances. With attendance near full capacity Saturday, the Hemmens Auditorium buzzed with anticipation of another superb concert led by Musical Director Robert Hanson.

The first stop was at Fingal's Cave, a rock formation in the islands west of Scotland, where Felix Mendelssohn was thought to have taken his inspiration for The Hebrides Overture around 1830, when he was in his twenties. The sensation of deep and shallow waters, and visions of Fingal (the Scots' mythical giant) filled the hall, as echoes of the Classical masters and shades of the new German Romantics clashed throughout Mendelssohn's rarely peaceful work. The orchestra played like a force of nature, through tense countermelodies, stormy chords and crashing sixteen-note unisons, drawing on a collective musical consciousness that spans the continents and the centuries.

French composer Edouard Lalo's Symphonie espagnole (1875) for Violin and Orchestra featured soloist Chee-Yun in a magnificent performance. The concerto-like work in five movements has a definite Mediterranean flavor, seasoned with traces of Gypsy dance, and spicy rhythms imported from the New World. From one moment to the next, you cannot take your eyes off the radiant Chee-Yun as she teases airy and intricate phrases from the Stradivarius, then tumbles three octaves into a swarthy, even scandalous twirl through the low register. The orchestra all but disappears when she plays, until her notes are briefly doubled by another voice in a sultry musical gancho. Her effortless blending of wet and dry techniques were like a feast of Spanish tapas that you wished would never end.

For an encore, Chee-Yun's performance of a Fritz Kreisler cadenza offered more stunning proof that world-class talent is as much a part of Elgin culture as the local pub where she and other musicians gathered after the concert. And the community clearly loves the ESO: even though most patrons had already seen the video preview of next year's concert season, they gladly applauded it once again.

Headlining the program was Aaron Copland's beloved Appalachian Spring, a suite derived from music he wrote for a ballet depicting the American pioneers of western Pennsylvania. The music starts off open and transparent, as the winds bravely enter, one or two at a time, just the way early Americans set out across the continent with no cover from the elements. As different tones and tempos come together with a form, scale and repetition not unlike the art-glass designs of Frank Lloyd Wright, the music finds a voice we now recognize as characteristically American. On a compositional spectrum that includes Gershwin and Bernstein, Copland's musical language touches us prairie folk the deepest, and the ESO, with perfect diction, speaks this language like true natives.

An Orkney Wedding, With Sunrise by contemporary English composer Peter Maxwell Davies served as the dramatic finale. While the reverse dotted figures and solo reeds are recognizably Scottish, the unfamiliar (uncomfortable to some) musical setting throughout this piece clearly charts a territory few of us know. The piece required unusual discipline from the ESO throughout its chaotic middle, but the convincing final entrance of Highland bagpiper Carl Donley reminds us of everything we love about the Scotch: though like the whisky, some will say it's an acquired taste.

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