Sunday, November 6, 2011

Area Artists Perform World Premier at Tribute Concert

Capping off another magnificent weekend for the arts in Elgin was a spectacular concert of soloists and a world premiere performance of original music in a program dedicated to the life of Nancy Hillquist, an Elgin mother, nurse and ECC educator who bravely fought cancer until September 2009. 

The audience in Epworth United Methodist church was nearing capacity Sunday as harpist Theodora Barclay played works by Rota and Saint-Saens. The angelic sounds of a solo harp are a rare pleasure, and Barclay's graceful and expressive renditions were a perfect prelude to the concert of remembrance that followed.

Concert organizer and noted Elgin choral conductor and organist Gary Hillquist commissioned an original anthem in honor of his wife Nancy, scored for choir, organ, harp, flute, brass quartet and percussion. The world premiere of "Great Our Joy," with original music by Joel Raney and words by Fred Pratt Green was performed by a superb ensemble: the Heartland Voices directed by Dr. John Slawson, harpist Theodora Barclay, flautist Diane Hansen, organist Aram Basmadjian and the five-piece Brilliant Brass.  

The sacred and inspiring lyrics were given a glorious setting by Raney in a perfect blend of traditional choral harmony and counterpoint, and a free modern form that used changes in key and voicing to create a sense of deep spiritual truth combined with constant, joyous renewal. 

The majority of the program featured the charismatic organ virtuoso Aram Basmadjian in series of works spanning three centuries. A former airline pilot, and now music executive and recording artist, Basmadjian produced an astonishing volume and variety of sounds on Epworth's three-manual Allen organ. Awed by his talent and delighted by his engaging and witty remarks before each piece, the audience was treated to an encore performance of Bach after giving a long standing ovation.

For more information on the artists, or to donate to the Community Crisis Center in honor of Nancy Hillquist, visit

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

"Russian Spectacular" Lives Up To Its Billing

The ESO launched its 2011-2012 season at The Hemmens on Friday with a well-conceived program of magnificent surprises. The lobby was enlivened by excited patrons of all ages, caterers, vendors and new procedures at the hall doors. For the first time in years, an image of now retired Music Director Robert Hanson was missing from the program cover, though he received a generous full-page tribute inside for his exceptional contributions to the organization.

The concert opened with a performance by the audience: singing the National Anthem accompanied by the entire orchestra, standing along with guest conductor Ignat Solzhenitsyn in an inspiring and unexpected gesture of patriotism before the start of a program of classics entitled "Love & War: A Russian Spectacular."

For an opener, the internationally-acclaimed maestro led the ESO through a colorful, flowing interpretation of Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet, eliciting a moving performance of the famous love themes with generous and expressive cues and body language. Despite an occasional staggered entrance, the ensemble was impressively synchronized through long sections of afterbeats and a series of final chords. Near the end, a sequence of choralic woodwind "amens" foreshadowed the concert finale. 

Perhaps more moving than the tragic end of Romeo and Juliet are the forces of love and loyalty that impelled them, and this was the perfect prelude to Alexander Glazunov's Concerto in A Minor for Violin and Orchestra, featuring ESO concertmaster and violin soloist Isabella Lippi. Throughout the piece, you get the distinct feeling that you are listening to a group of people who truly respect and care about each other, coming together to work at something they love. Ms. Lippi's playing was strong and focused, displaying both the skill of an artisan and the passion of an artist, laid out in textures and timings that suggest not merely sound or movement, but also thought. After a long, abstract and technically dazzling cadenza, the piece concludes with spirited allegro in which the orchestra and soloist take turns with joyful, dance-like phrases that hint at the sounds of Russian music that would emerge over the next thirty years. 

After the intermission, remarks by Principal Trumpet Ross Beacraft echoed the themes of love and loyalty between the ESO and its audience, as he announced their plans for a worldwide search for a Music Director.

The symphonic poem The Rock by a young Sergei Rachmaninov completed this program's artistic trajectory of Russian composers, but the concert finale was reserved for one of the most popular concert works ever written: Tchaikovsky's overture 1812. The orchestra was joined by the Elgin Choral Union for a seldom-heard arrangement of the piece in which the chorus sings sacred Russian lyrics to the hymn-like sections at the beginning and near the end of the piece. Add to this the inspiring subtitles projected overhead, effects of cannon fire and church bells, stirring performances by percussion and brass, and you have an exhilarating Russian spectacle that still brings a teardrop and a chill no matter how many times you may have heard it. Cheers arose before the last note even ended, and the audience followed with a standing ovation so vigorous that it brought smiles to the faces of every musician on stage. Clearly, this is the "concert" they come to hear: the applause of a loyal, adoring, and grateful audience.

If you haven't heard the ESO lately, this is an exciting time to become reacquainted, and the "Russsian Spectacular" is just the beginning. For tickets to the Saturday (8 p.m.) or Sunday (3:30 p.m.) concerts go to

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Star Performances Light Up Elgin Symphony Concert at Prairie Center

Classic works in three movements, on a three-part program featuring three soloists: this is one way to describe the musical trifecta presented by the ESO this weekend. But "five stars" is another.  Returning guest artists Inon Barnatan, Chee-Yun, and Alisa Weilerstein are joined by conductor Kazem Abdullah and the ESO in an exceptional combination of talent rarely seen on any stage. Repeat performances are scheduled for 8:00 p.m. Saturday, April 30 and 3:30 p.m. Sunday, May 1 at the Hemmens in Elgin.

Every fan of the ESO should, at least once, see and hear them at Schaumburg's Prairie Center for the Arts. Less than half the size of the Hemmens (which itself is small by some standards), this venue is designed so that every seat is within 15 rows of its protruding stage, of which the orchestra uses every inch. The effect is like a private recital by the sort of artists who would have played in the palaces of royalty.

Beethoven's "Overture to Egmont, Op. 84" (1810) set the tone for the all-German program. It's the Beethoven we know and love, with tense thematic statements punctuated by complex inverted chords and tripled octaves. This man's music animates string players like no other, and entire sections could be seen digging into the notes, wrestling with it, as if to join the ancient Flemish resistance against Spain which was the subject of the piece. At other times, all forty could play so softly that the voice of a single reed could speak easily to the four hundred listeners.

The historic Isenheim Altarpiece, a series of sacred Renaissance panel paintings from the monastery of St. Anthony were the inspiration for Paul Hindemith's Symphony, Mathis der Mahler ("Matthias the Painter," 1933). Its three movements refer to three scenes from Matthias Grunewald's masterpiece: "Angelic Concert" (the Annunciation), "Entombment" (the Crucifixion), and "Temptation of St. Anthony." Mixing elements of the beautiful and the grotesque, the music features elegant flute solos and deep-throated brass in a depiction that combines quotes of sacred hymns alongside modern turns of phrase, music which eventually separated Hindemith from the Nazi regime and his native Germany. 

Maestro Kazem Abdullah is relaxed and confident, and his rapport with the musicians is evident in his interpretation of Hindemith's complex score. The backdrop of the Prairie Center stage, awash in colorful light, looked like a canvas upon which Abdullah painted with the sound, using fluent and expressive movement like brush strokes, filling the entire space with hue, texture and detail.

Highlighting the program was the return of three outstanding soloists in the performance of Beethoven's Triple Concerto (1804). Violinist Chee-Yun, cellist Alisa Weilerstein and pianist Inon Barnatan were warmly welcomed by an admiring audience as they took places close together on the small stage, and as the music started, this reviewer would not have wanted it any other way. The artists began an irresistible musical dialog of eye contact, body language, and of course the most eloquent playing. The two strings led throughout most of the work, exchanging soft staccatos and ebullient fortes in one moment, combining in graceful duets the next. The piano joined in for sections of triple sextuplets, and passages where the unaccompanied trio produced a sound that rivaled the orchestra. 

Throughout sections of unusually light material (for Beethoven), the artists easily moved through various tempos and meters backed by an attentive ensemble and a focused, capable conductor. Weilerstein, Barnatan and Chee-Yun each shared delightful personal glimpses in brief rubatos near the end of the third movement, putting their personal signature on an intimate and moving performance.

Like its debut in the home of Vienna's Prince Lobkowitz, complete with the sounds of breaking horsehairs, page turns, and piano pedals, the Triple Concerto was a delight to hear in the casual confines of the Prairie Center. And just as a certain ESO violinist once told me, "the audience always claps after the allegro."

Friday, April 15, 2011

Elgin Symphony and Choral Union Join for "Gershwin in Blue"

Elgin Symphony Orchestra displayed its impressive versatility in presenting groundbreaking works by George Gershwin in its weekend pops program entitled "Gershwin in Blue." The ESO, joined by the Elgin Choral Union, guest artists, and Associate Conductor Stephen Squires will give repeat performances Saturday, April 16th at 8:00 p.m. and Sunday, April 17th at 3:30 p.m.

Born into the cultural upheaval of turn-of-the-century Brooklyn, George Gershwin arrived at just the right time and place to carve out a distinctly American musical niche. Combining his Russian-Jewish musical ethos with the avant-garde harmonies of French composers like Ravel and Debussy, together with the panache of American march, vaudeville, theatre and popular song, and propelled by the rhythms of ragtime and the stop-and-go life of the big city, Gershwin successfully fused together elements of early jazz, Broadway, opera, gospel spirituals and European art music in a way never known before or since.

A short, but memorable "hit parade" of his works from Tin Pan Alley and Hollywood opened the program Friday afternoon, to the delight of three generations of music lovers in the audience, who warmly congratulated Maestro Squires on his twenty years with the ESO. 

The instrumental highlight of the program was the iconic Rhapsody in Blue, featuring pianist Jodie DeSalvo. First written as a kind of experimental piano concerto for "King of Jazz" Paul Whiteman's band in 1924, the orchestral arrangement retains much of the club-like intimacy of a rhythm section and horns, but adds a beautiful gloss of strings and the drama of orchestral percussion. Ms. DeSalvo navigated the complex keyboard score with an unreserved emotion and humanity that even Beethoven would have admired, a welcome contrast to the mechanical style of some of today's music school products. Exchanging eloquent single-note melodies and ringing chords between piano and orchestra, the ensemble pulled off subtle, unexpected timings like a speakeasy combo, creating an improvisational effect that grabs your attention and holds it like only jazz can do. In a piece that still sounds edgy after eighty-seven years, the ESO brought Gershwin's signature sound vividly to life: the sounds of both the bright lights and the shades of gray that colored New York City life in the 1920's.

Seven hundred miles to the South, DuBose Heyward was writing a novel about African American life in Charleston, South Carolina, entitled "Porgy." His detailed, sympathetic portrayal of "Catfish Row" culture appealed to Gershwin, and together they created the opera Porgy and Bess based on the novel. It premiered in New York in 1935 with an all-black cast and endured numerous revisions throughout its controversial history. The 40-minute concert version heard this weekend features fourteen songs and excerpts arranged for soprano, baritone and choir.

The graceful and elegant soprano of Ollie Watts Davis gave beautiful shape to the lyrics of "Summertime" and "My Man's Gone Now," yet her superb tone and control leave you wanting to hear more than just what this libretto has to offer. The dashing Leon Williams injected a touch of drama into his charismatic deliveries of "It Ain't Necessarily So" and "I Got Plenty O' Nuttin'," animating his solos with just the right body language and gesture. In duets, their voices meshed seamlessly without losing each one's distinct quality. 

The Elgin Choral Union provided a robust textural balance in ensemble movements and in call-and-response settings of Gershwin and Heyward's colorful, regional lyrics. Formidable male and female solos added variety to their vibrant sound. Other standouts included fantastic ESO performances on mallets, muted brass, and solo reeds, especially the juke joint licks of the lead clarinet. The Hemmens stage, filled by soloists, orchestra, and choir is an awesome sight, but the words to Porgy and Bess were a little hard to hear for those with more than 20 rows in front of them (or more than 40 years behind them). Nonetheless, conductor Stephen Squires elicited an amazing performance of the ever-changing keys and rhythms of the multicultural nation that Gershwin knew and loved, a musical legacy that is both black and white, urban and rural, highbrow and hepcat, and quintessentially American.

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.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Elgin Symphony's Impassioned "Don Juan and Dvorak"

Shouts of approval from the hall capped the finale of the ESO's "Don Juan and Dvorak" program of classics Friday afternoon at the Hemmens. The audience took every opportunity to applaud Elgin's acclaimed orchestra, now in its 61st season. In fact, the enthusiastic response to Music Director Robert Hanson's first appearance on stage was exceeded only by the standing ovation at the concert's end.  The ESO displayed superb artistry in the two hour program, performing a diverse and delightful set of classics that explored the musical expressions of drama, dance, poetry, and song.

None other than Mozart gives us the first of two musical takes on the legend of Don Juan, the mythical Spanish playboy whose quest for knowledge of the opposite sex eventually leads to his own destruction. In the overture to the comic opera known as Don Giovanni, Mozart deftly sets the stage for tragedy as well as comedy in a characteristically entertaining style that invites you into the drama like only the cleverest book jacket blurb or movie preview. A consummate showman at heart, the composer finished the overture the very day before its 1787 premiere in Prague.  Two hundred twenty-four years later, the ESO played it as if it was being heard for the first time: with freshness, intensity and an obvious affection for the audience and the art.

We may never know the number of Don Juan's children, but his literary and artistic progeny span at least twenty generations. His legend was the subject and namesake of Richard Strauss's breakout symphonic poem, written a century after Mozart's opera, when Strauss was only 24. At its opening flourish, you realize that this is like no poetry you've heard before. Images of a dashing Don Juan spring to life from the orchestra: you can hear silver conchos jangling on his belt, see his sword slicing the air, feel his breath as if he's striding towards you. This music tests every limit of the orchestra to produce all the effects of a motion picture without pictures or dialogue.  At Maestro Hanson's direction, the combined forces of more than sixty-five musicians are able to create a kind of superhuman musical voice, just the sort of thing that would preoccupy Strauss's imagination for the rest of his life. From tender, lyrical, romantic interludes to fierce moments of conflict, the ESO conveyed a full and complex range of pathos with a brilliant musical technique, ending the Don's story with a three-note ellipsis that would seem to say, "we'll be hearing much more from this young composer."

Yet it is often the simplest phrases and quietest notes that separate a good musician from a great one. The abundance of such in the Ancient Airs and Dances -- Suite No. 1 leave no doubt which sort of musician plays in the ESO. The endearingly coy rhythms of Ottorio Respighi's modern setting of Renaissance formal dances proved that there is beauty in restraint. Elegant solos and duets by double reeds and strings against a transparent but perfectly syncrhonized orchestral accompaniment were as fluid and intimate as those of a seasoned quartet. Unlike a similar suite by his English contemporary Peter Warlock, Respighi's use of lute-like harp chords — and harpsichord — lent a loving, period authenticity to the work, which still moves us, musician and audience alike, to tap our feet and nod our heads with the music as we recall the ancient urge to dance.

Following the intermission, the concert concluded with Antonin Dvorak's Symphony No. 8, considered an unusually cheerful work from a period when other composers of his own generation were writing music with much darker tones. The sights and sounds of his native Bohemia would seem to have inspired many of his musical motifs, whose natural, song-like phrasings are easy to grasp and remember. Colorful flute solos and a clarinet duet decorated the four movements, which ventured smoothly through numerous changes of tempo and meter, each section in turn playing perfectly in unison, then in harmony.

As his career progressed, Dvorak gravitated westward, eventually spending three years in America where he would leave us an important musical gift: not just his famous Ninth Symphony "From the New World," nor his "American Suite," but a lasting vision for American music that included the unique influences of Native American and African American sounds. If you listen closely to the fourth movement of Symphony No. 8, you might hear a "blue" note or two — the musical twinkle in Dvorak's eye that would someday be heard again in American jazz, gospel, and blues music.

The ESO presents two more performances of "Don Juan and Dvorak," Saturday, March 5th at 8:00 pm and Sunday, March 6th at 3:30 pm. Tickets are still available online at or call the Box Office at (847) 888-4000.

Monday, January 31, 2011

ESO Presents the Music of Russian Masters

This weekend, you'll experience the powerful competition of ideas, emotion and fantasy in an all-Russian concert featuring a work whose composer never heard it performed.

Topping the bill is Modest Mussorgsky's A Night on Bald Mountain, a piece of music which died, arose and changed forms not unlike the witches whose myth inspired it. After the composer's death in 1881, the work was rearranged for concert performance by his friend and colleague Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, whose brilliant creative spirit haunts much of the Russian music from this period.

Another member of their fiercely nationalistic circle, the doctor and chemist Alexander Borodin, contributed the important Russian opera Prince Igor as well as instrumental music.  The second of his three symphonies evokes the gleaming, heroic side of Russian folk legend.

The place of enduring love in the Russian psyche is marked by Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, a ballet and musical love story colored by black magic. Unlike his contemporaries, Tchaikovsky leaned westward in his style and injected more pathos than patriotism into his music.  Ironically, he confessed no love in the writing of his best known work, the overture 1812 which commemorates Russia's defense against Napoleon in Moscow.

Opposing forces is a main theme in the life of Dmitri Shostakovich, who fell in and out of favor with the Soviets repeatedly during his fifty-year career. The unusually upbeat Piano Concerto No. 2 was written for his son's 19th birthday, in the years after Stalin's death when the composer was enjoying a period of "official rehabilitation."

For tickets to "Night on Bald Mountain" call the ESO Box Office (847-888-4000) or visit