Thursday, January 14, 2016

"The Poetry of Music" at Elgin Art Showcase

After a weekend of amazing live chamber music performances at the Hemmens Cultural Center and Elgin Community College, two other groups joined forces at the Elgin Art Showcase to perform "The Poetry of Music" presented by Chamber Music on the Fox.

The 20-voice Chamber Singers of Elgin Master Chorale (EMC) were accompanied by the Elgin Chamber Players string quartet in Beethoven's "Elegischer Gesang" (1814) to open the death poetry-themed program. The choir made the room sound like a much bigger hall, especially faithful to the upper registers and more than honest with sibilant German consonants. Displaying tremendous dynamic range, the choir was capable of well-balanced fortes that could almost wake the dead.

The singers' gaze rarely left EMC Music Director Andrew Lewis, whose lucid conducting revealed the depth of their skill and preparation. No less a communicator with words, Lewis the educator shared insights on the evening's vocal works in impromptu remarks, for which the audience was overhead to whisper their gratitude during intermission.

The highlight of the choral performance was "Dark Night of the Soul," (2010) by living Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo, an expansive work that opens with a minimalist piano accompaniment played by Jon Warfel, known locally as the Choirmaster of Elgin's First Congregational Church.

Long, sustained vowels and modern harmonies evoked the mood of long Scandinavian nights, combined with the mysticism of the text by St. John of the Cross (1542-1592). Moments of powerful musical rapture fueled by lyrics like "love's urgent longings" were almost too big for the room, as complex chords gushed out overtones like a North Sea gale. "Dark Night" is a beautiful piece whose only critic was the hard surfaces of the Showcase.

Franz Schubert's String Quartet No. 14 in D Minor ("Death and the Maiden") offered a chance to witness the talents of area musicians Tarn Travers, Eleanor Bartsch (violins), Aurelien Pederzoli (viola) and Sara Sitzer (cello), who is also co-founder of Chamber Music on the Fox.

Despite its nickname, the piece is neither frail nor morose. A better understanding of its subject comes from the medieval "dance of death," understood for centuries as a pushing and pulling between mortals and the Grim Reaper.

The four players traveled a wide range of emotions and musical postures throughout the work's four movements, matching each other's phrasing, dynamic changes and rubatos as if they have played together for a long time. Schubert's startling shifts in key, rhythm and register never put these pros off their game.

The room made it difficult to play soft enough at times, but they are few and far between in this nearly 50-minute masterpiece of the quartet repertoire. Displaying the stamina to match their talents, the players rallied through a dramatic and tumultuous finale with aplomb.

Equally astonishing is the mere fact that performances of this quality are now appearing regularly in venues throughout Elgin, creating critical mass for the arts here, in the middle of what was once viewed as a lifeless suburban cultural desert.

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