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.