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.