Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Elgin Symphony Celebrates "America's Musical Treasures"

Forgoing a scholarly explanation, suffice it to say that American music has always been populist—that is, "music of the people"—and the people loved the Elgin Symphony Orchestra's program of "America's Musical Treasures" last weekend at the Hemmens.

A far cry from the stuffy art salons of the Old World, an ESO concert is now a bustling free market of ticket sales, shopping, opinion surveys, food and drink concessions and commercial messaging. It's a shame the ATM was out of service.

Overflowing with talent, this 90-minute program gave a convincing account of American musical genius, highlighting the abundant connections to jazz, dance and the theatre in the work of four great twentieth century composers.

Music Director Andrew Grams conducts the Elgin Symphony Orchestra.
Leonard Bernstein's boisterous "Overture to Candide" (1956) kept us delightfully off balance with its elusive downbeats, while the "Three Dance Episodes from On The Town" (1944) made every toe tap to its irresistible and propulsive riffs. Giving voice to musical ideas as big as New York City, the tightly synchronized ESO made it all look easy.

Authentic orchestral arrangements from Richard Rodgers' South Pacific (1949) and On Your Toes (1936) showcased the talents of this Broadway legend, and the exuberant conducting of Music Director Andrew Grams restored the luster to melodies we are often too quick to write off as high school band fare.

Contributions like those of the unlikely composer Paul Schoenfield are what makes America great: grass roots innovation that makes a difference. Inspired by personal experiences, two of his "Four Parables for Piano and Orchestra" (1983) bravely pushed us out of our comfort zone, but without insult or condescension. 

The unusually large orchestra was equipped with synthesizer, bass guitar, saxophone and an array of percussion in "Senility's Ride" and the quirky "Dog's Heaven." Though some of its unorthodox gestures defy description, Schoenfield's music speaks directly to our intuitions, and the dialect is distinctly American.

Soloist William Wolfram congratulated by
Maestro Andrew Grams
Listeners were overheard complementing the professionalism of piano soloist William Wolfram, whose performance of Schoenfield was entirely on point: vivid and unpretentious.

In one of several remarks given by Maestro Grams throughout the program, he confessed a particular appreciation for the music of Aaron Copland, whose voice is considered by many to be something of an American archetype.

Three movements, taken from Copland's ballet Rodeo (1942) and opera The Tender Land (1954), were combined into a suite for the concert's finale. So revered are these works by artists and audiences that their performances are like liturgical readings, and the ESO always rises to the occasion. After lengthy applause, the audience was treated to a rollicking rendition of Copland's "Hoedown" for an encore.

This month's thematic combination of classics, new music, and a guest artist—with wind and brass sections at their best—make a powerful argument for the future of live symphonic music in Elgin.

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