Sunday, April 15, 2018

Between Worlds: Elgin Master Chorale and Duruflé's Requiem

The last concert of any choir's or orchestra's season is often the best, because the musicians have completed a full eight months of development, individually and together as an ensemble. This was evident Sunday as the Elgin Master Chorale and the EMC Children's Chorus concluded their season at the ECC Arts Center.

The nineteen-voice Children's Chorus showed the courage of a group many times its size in taking on an incredible variety of material, sung in three languages and almost entirely memorized. Sacred and traditional songs were combined with modern tunes arranged with tricky key and meter changes and subtle harmonies. The high point was possibly "Tcho tcho losa," a South African call-and-response folk song delivered with authentic tone and technique — entirely a cappella. 

The quality of the music was matched by the singers' confidence and professionalism. Managing Director Becky Narofsky is an enthusiastic and skilled artist-educator whose work with this group is clearly reflected in their sound and presence on the stage.

Joined by members of the Elgin Symphony Orchestra and guest instrumentalists, the Elgin Master Chorale presented the forty minute Requiem, Op. 9 (1947) by Maurice Duruflé (1902-1986). This impressionistic nine-part Mass for the Dead, well known in the choral repertory, was new to many in the audience and on stage.

Conductor and Music Director Andrew Lewis introduced the composer and the work in opening remarks, in a lecture-recital style that is appearing more and more in the concert hall. But this didn't soften the wonderful surprise of the first few moments of the Mass's Introit. This is very different from other works you've heard bearing the title "Requiem."

Ancient sacred Gregorian chants supplied the modal palette that gives this music its ethereal quality, avoiding the usual emotional interpretations of major or minor keys. The orchestra, augmented by organist David Schrader, produced sounds and textures that defied explanation at times, adding to the experience of being between worlds.

The power of more than one hundred voices was restrained and reverent throughout most of the Mass, but the full-throated delivery of "Hosanna in excelsis" ("Hosanna in the highest") or "judicare saeculum per ignem" ("to judge the world by fire") moved one's spirit in quite a different way.

Always technically on point, the Chorale enunciated the Latin text well enough to be followed easily in the program, and fragile entrances like "Cum sanctis tuis" ("with Thy saints") or "Chorus Angelorum" ("chorus of angels") did not detract from the overall execution.

Soprano soloist Katherine Wells gave a radiant delivery, and in the mezzo range her voice took on a modernistic tone that complemented the piece nicely. Maestro Lewis was clear and confident at the baton and elicited a powerful interpretation from the combined forces of more than 150 musicians.


With each passing season, these Elgin Master Chorale collaborations prove to be more than just a choir concert — they are significant art events. With this score and the voices assembled on the Blizzard Theatre stage, this performance made us forget what city, what century or what plane of existence we were in, and there is truly nothing more that can be asked of any concert.

For more information on the Elgin Master Chorale and the Children's Chorus summer programs, visit elginmasterchorale.org, emcchildrenschorus.org, or call (847) 214-7225.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Janus Theatre Company: How Do We Talk About Race?

"Public dialogue is never real dialogue," says Dean of Students Sara Daniels, played by Tricia Miller Hewson. It's one of many powerful observations made by "Spinning Into Butter," a 1999 play by Rebecca Gilman, directed by Richard Pahl and produced by Sean Hargadon of Janus Theatre Company. The play opened Friday at the Elgin Art Showcase.

It's a continuation of Janus' season-long series entitled "Inspired By ..." which attempts to understand, through theater, the creation, debate and removal of Elgin's "American Nocturne" mural in 2016. "Spinning" addresses the question, "How do we talk about race?"

In a series of scenes full of lots of private dialog, a small New England college struggles with its response to incidents of racial hostility. Art truly imitates life in this play: there's lots of words and not much action, and public remarks on racism make an all-white audience rather uncomfortable.

Tricia Miller Hewson ("Sarah Daniels") handled her huge leading role very nicely, anchored by a long confessional exposition toward the end. A stalwart supporting cast led by Justin Schaller ("Ross Collins") were able to differentiate their characters into various shades of whiteness. Spencer Huffman ("Greg Sullivan") gave an especially controlled and convincing performance in a smaller role.

A 360-degree stage setup made beautiful use of the space in keeping with this company's up-close style, and the face-to-face audience arrangement added depth and meaning to the script. The brisk and often tense lines were generally easy to hear and the lighting and sound where excellent in design and execution.

"Spinning Into Butter" leaves us with unanswered questions about race and more. Do we create a false "otherness" by recognizing individuality? Does our class membership determine what we're allowed to think and say? Is justice possible in a diverse society? But two things this play is sure of: generalizing about racism is as bad as generalizing about race; and authentic dialogue must be private and intentional.

You can participate in the public/private conversation by seeing "Spinning Into Butter" Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 3pm through March 25th at the Elgin Art Showcase. For tickets and more information, go to www.janusplays.com.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

EYSO and The Things You Learn from "Water"

Getting sixty kids and teens together in a room to sit still for five minutes would be a challenge. Getting them to play a movement from Handel's Concerto Grosso Op. 6 No. 1 — without a conductor — defies belief. It happened on the Blizzard Theatre stage Sunday as the Elgin Youth Symphony Orchestra presented "Water," the latest installment in its 2017-2018 season titled "Elemental: What Natures Tells Us About the Orchestra."

That's just the beginning of what is possible when the dedicated artist-educators of EYSO entrust students with a performance they have thoroughly contemplated and rehearsed. Then, the first and second violin sections stand up and trade places for Deep River, the African American spiritual arranged with complex harmonies and expressive phrasings, followed by a dance movement from Ginastera's ballet Estancia, during which they stand and play directly to the audience. The depth of cooperation and concentration add a sincerity that elevates the music from a recital to a statement about the expressive potential of a sensitive group of (young) people.

Most music students are never asked to consider the creative possibilities within a single sustained chord, or the artistic challenges of one slowly played note, but those questions were abundant in Eric Whitacre's Water Night. The power of careful listening, emphasized in remarks by conductor Andrew Masters, was tested in Anton Arensky's Dream on the Volga Overture, Op. 16 which explored the full sonic capabilities of the orchestra. This season marks the first time some of these students have ever played with winds and strings together; for others it's a communication breakthrough when they see and hear the audience respond to their playing.

For generations, organized youth sports have been considered the best place to learn teamwork and loyalty, and to develop excellence from a little bit of natural skill and an honest work ethic. Perhaps a better place is youth orchestra, where all of those values are modeled in an art form that touches upon every part of human conscience and culture. 

The EYSO offers opportunities for young musicians of all abilities. Placement auditions for the 2018-2019 season will be held May 31-June 3, 2018. Find out more at www.eyso.org.

How the Heartland Voices Twisted the Night Away

A large musical repertoire is a credit to any choir, but the talent and courage to perform it with costumes, dance and comedy sets the Heartland Voices apart from other area vocal groups.

Just one week ago, the Voices appeared in formal dress in the sanctuary of First United Methodist Church, performing two sacred works accompanied by organ at the "Bach Around the Clock" event. Conducted by Artistic Director Dr. John Slawson, this is the choir you may know for its full, balanced sound, with crisp articulations and musical control.

Many of these same singers took the stage at the Kimball Street Theater to present "Twistin' the Night Away," a cabaret-style revue of music from the fifties and sixties. Accompanied by a tight three-piece band, they recreated the sounds of the Andrews Sisters, the Four Seasons and other memorable voices of the era in solos, trios and various lead-and-backing vocal arrangements.


Of course the music was good, but to see this sophisticated ensemble transform into a show choir was remarkable. In groups of three to eight, they executed modest but effective choreography by Konnie Kay Sherry, and solo performances sparkled with humor and personality. Enhancing this depth of talent, the first rate lighting and sound gave this show a professional look.

As guests of honor, David and Sandy Kaptain were recognized for their efforts in helping develop the cultural life of Elgin into an important part of its civic identity.

The Heartland Voices have played that role as well, offering eighteen years worth of proof that local talent combined with professional direction in a nicely equipped venue can produce affordable art and entertainment experiences that are the envy of northwestern Chicagoland.
Their next concert series entitled "She Writes the Songs" features the work of female composers, lyricists and poets. You can hear them April 20-22 in West Dundee, Elgin or Batavia. Find out more at www.heartlandvoices.com.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Ballet 5:8's Moving Rendition of "Scarlet"

The powerful portrayal of a classic American story inhabited the stage at the Hemmens Cultural Center in Elgin as Ballet 5:8 revisited Scarlet, a fully developed two-act ballet choreographed by Artistic Director Juliana Rubio Slager.

Based on The Scarlet Letter, the landmark 1850 novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Scarlet reexamines morality through the public and private struggles of flawed characters in a socially rigid community. The contrast between individuality and conformity is highlighted throughout, as each lead character resolves this tension through confession, repentance or spiritual transcendence.

Paired perfectly with a score by the New England modernist composer Charles Ives, the voice of American innovation is strong in the dance, which extends the neoclassical approach with elements of film and spoken word.


The company looked spectacular and mature as an ensemble, with movement that made the Ives symphonic excerpts sound like they were written just for this ballet. Each artist was distinctly expressive within collective interpretations of the public square, worship and domestic life.

Lead roles danced by Brette Benedict, Antonio Rosario and Sam Opsal were eloquent and athletic, excelling in form and detail for nearly two hours of performance. The solos and pas de deux were nicely scaled for the Hemmens stage, and the lighting and curtain work were precise throughout. The film projection would have fared better with a new lamp.

Though the swirling organza looks beautiful and the movement is on par with olympic athletes, concert dance is a language that can be learned and understood. The source material for Scarlet — familiar to so many Americans — makes this ballet accessible, and new audiences will clearly recognize that while some of us must wear a badge of shame, everyone's petticoats are scarlet.

The finest in any art form leaves you wanting more, and we would gladly experience this production again, which tells a story "between a dream and reality" in a medium that's between a dance, a poem, a play and a symphony. Learn more about Ballet 5:8 and Scarlet's national tour at www.ballet58.org.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Elgin Theatre Portrays War ... and "Piece"

The memories of women who survived the Vietnam War are brought vividly to life in Shirley Lauro's 1991 play A Piece of my Heart suggested by the book by Keith Walker, performed by Elgin Theatre Company Saturday night at the Elgin Art Showcase.

Written in documentary fashion, consisting of scenic vignettes divided up by monologues and music, Piece is a scrapbook of situations experienced by a collage of characters that suggest the range of capacities in which women served in the war: nurses, relief workers, entertainers and soldiers. Every woman had a distinct personal story, and many volunteered as a means of escaping the social constraints of pre-feminist, mid-century America. Once they arrive "in country," however, the alternating horror and monotony of daily experience drives them to escape to booze, drugs and rock 'n' roll.


Rather than develop each individual character in the cast of seven, the play often uses them interchangeably to stand in for generic people and voices of The War. In fact, the only male role is simply that of "The American Men," played by Mark Brewer. As "Leann" (Angel Novie) puts it when she arrives in Vietnam, "I'm not special. Everybody's here."

During the long first act, the characters become exhausted by the relentless assault on their senses, their ethics and their identities, and feel their humanity slipping away as routinely as the soldiers lose their limbs. When they escape the war to return home in Act Two, they find themselves wounded, once again in a country that seems entirely foreign to them.

A great script becomes an amazing production when the set, the action, and the sound and lighting tell the story as eloquently as the words. Superb interpretation by director Madeline Franklin presents the non-linear material as it should be envisioned: with an abstract set, symbolic costumes and minimal props.

In roles that border on "performance art," the cast gave inspired performances, shifting smoothly in and out of multiple characterizations, going from panic to intoxication, breaking into song, resetting the stage, never missing a cue or an entrance. Libby Einterz ("Martha") and Elizabeth Dawson ("Whitney") rose above the script in delivering key lines that may have been overwritten but were not overacted.

Kiara Wolfe ("Sissy"), Jamie McCalister ("MaryJo") and Marixa Ford ("Steele") added to the excellent talent that keeps Elgin Theatre Company still fresh after more than fifty-five seasons on stage. A Piece of my Heart closes with three more shows, Feb. 16th and 17th at 8 p.m. and Feb. 18th at 2 p.m. at the Elgin Art Showcase, 164 Division Street in downtown Elgin. For more information, go to www.elgin-theatre.org.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Steel Beam Theatre's "Dry Powder" is a Strong Buy

In the deal-making world of private equity investing, words do most of the work, and the four-member cast of Sarah Burgess' 2016 play Dry Powder does lots of hard work in a single act filled to the margins with fast-paced corporate-speak. Directed by Sean Hargadon, the play opened at the Steel Beam Theatre Friday, January 12th.

From left: Jennifer Reeves-Wilson as Jenny, John Westby as Rick, and Justin Schaller as Seth
 in Dry Powder, directed by Sean Hargadon at the Steel Beam Theatre

John Westby plays Rick, the firm's restless President who's constantly juggling deals, investors, and press coverage. He's a simple man who plays a complicated game very well. His two managers, Jenny (Jennifer Reeves-Wilson) and Seth (Justin Schaller) are more sharply defined. Jenny's decisions are as black-or-white as the numbers printed on her reports; she regards public relations as a mere necessary evil. Seth tempers his profit motives with qualitative principles, recognizing value in loyalty, patriotism and good will.

As a team, their constant verbal sparring over strategies is a three-person industry of its own that thrives on persuasion and competition. Yet as tightly as they are wound, the executives remain almost entirely impersonal toward each other, their employees, their families, even themselves (Rick: "My personal life can't factor in...")

The play revolves around the firm's leveraged buyout of a luggage manufacturer, headed by CEO Jeff (Richard Isemonger), who is quite the opposite: proud and paternal about his employees and their brand. Just like his suitcases, he's concerned about preserving and protecting what he already has: a reputation, a legacy. The main thing his corporate suitors are concerned with is keeping their powder dry, a metaphor for investment capital based on an old solider's maxim.

Richard Isemonger as Jeff (left), with Justin Schaller in Dry Powder.

Scenes set mostly in New York are dense with dialogue, leaving little or no space between lines. The well-prepared cast never faltered, and the limited physical action reminds us that we are looking into a world where looking good and talking smart are the essential qualifications. The script's comedic material was nicely delivered, and the audience laughed best at moments when the characters did a little acting of their own.

As the plot moves from office to restaurant to waiting room, music and video provided effective page-turns, and the stripped-down set was versatile and unobtrusive. The Steel Beam Theatre is comfortable, visually interesting, and there isn't a bad seat in the house. Snacks and beverages are available to sustain you through this 95-minute performance.

There's lots to think about after the play concludes with an interesting and refreshingly personal coda by Jenny. There are no clear victims, villains, heroes or clowns in Dry Powder, just lots of questions, among them "what is the price of a conscience?"

Make your own company valuation, Fridays and Saturdays at 8PM or Sundays at 3PM through February 4th. For more information go to steelbeamtheatre.com