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 http://www.elginsymphony.org