Monday, November 5, 2012

Audience Shouts Praises in Elgin Symphony Orchestra Concert

Like a first kiss, or airplane flight, or view of the Grand Canyon, some sensations transform us by their newness. Such was the feeling at the Hemmens Sunday, as the Elgin Symphony Orchestra presented "Pictures at an Exhibition", dedicated to legendary ESO patrons Edward and Pearle Brody, with guest conductor Steven Jarvi. 

In front of a capacity crowd Sunday, the ESO performed a brilliant series of works that paired creative risks with sheer musical excellence that drew unscripted exclamations from listeners throughout the hall.

Maurice Ravel's five-part Mother Goose suite (1912) showcased the ESO's intuitive treatment of an impressionist master's colorful orchestration. Exquisite woodwind solos and choreographed flashes of percussion decorated a rapidly shifting subtle palette of string textures. Combined with the projected subtitles quoting some of Ravel's own annotations from the score, the experience was as fresh as childhood -- or what it might be like for an audience of 1912 to see "silent" moving pictures for the first time.

ESO audiences love to hear from the conductor or the artists, and program commentary by Mr. Jarvi was well-received, as were remarks by ESO musicians and staff highlighting the considerable wealth of talent, training and instrumentation collected on stage, and a sincere appeal for sponsorships. All eyes were on the program booklet, reflecting a recent makeover with some excellent new content, subtly disguising the abundant space available for new advertisers (downtown restaurants, this means you!).

The program's top billing (and finale) was Ravel's well-known version (1922) of Modest Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition (1874), a suite of movements written in memory of 19th century Russian artist and architect Victor Hartmann. To complement the orchestra's learned yet sensuous performance, a series of thematically-linked images was projected overhead. Rather than distract or detract from the music, the video effectively added a stimulating layer of interpretation to the piece, which itself was inspired by a visual medium.

The highest point in this superb program was Ghost Ranch, a 2006 work by Michigan composer Michael Dougherty. Inspired by the scenery and artist's lore of the New Mexican desert that painter Georgia O'Keefe called home, the three-part piece transports you to an untamed American wilderness of extremes: at times light and dark, hot and cold, lonesome and overpowering. With one astonishing performance after another, individuals and sections brought forth mile after mile of changing sonic climates, flaunting wildly unorthodox playing techniques, free rhythmic episodes, abrupt seating changes and unwavering courage to follow Maestro Jarvi through a complex landscape of tempos and tonalities. The compositional language was clearly American, phrased in modern, but accessible idioms -- exactly the right balance for this perceptive but pragmatic audience, who whispered "wow!," "very unusual", and "this is wild!" throughout. It must have been a thrill for Mr. Dougherty, seated in the hall, to hear this piece played so well.

The orchestra sounded superb throughout the expansive program of 100 minutes, and received two standing ovations. Steven Jarvi's conducting was powerful, precise and genuine, showing a refinement well beyond his years; the admiration of the ensemble was evident. 

And Elgin clearly loved this adventuresome program. Technology continues to change how -- and how directly -- ordinary people engage with the fine arts, and this orchestra, this concert hall, and this city are poised to become pioneers once again: of a whole new territory in art music.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Elgin Chamber Players' Lively Debut

An innovative concert program and great performances marked the arrival of a new chamber music ensemble to the Elgin arts scene. The Elgin Chamber Players, led by bass trombonist Mark Fry, presented their first formal concert in Gail Borden Library's Community Room Thursday. The free event also featured flutists Scott Metlicka and Lily Floeter (substituting for Melissa Snoza), and percussionists Matthew Coley and Lia DeRoin, all from Elgin or the surrounding area. 

Recognizing the need for more local chamber music -- concert works performed by small groups of various instruments -- the Players developed a program of rarely heard compositions played by unusual combinations of instruments. 

The attention-grabbing "100 Bars for Tom Everett" by Romanian composer Andras Szollosy paired bass trombone with bongos in a 1981 piece named after the best known master of the instrument. Informative remarks by Fry set an engaging, informal tone for the remainder of the concert.

The combination of hammered dulcimer played by Coley, with Metlicka on flute, lent a baroque quality to four "2-part Inventions" by J.S. Bach, whose counterpoint, normally played solo on a keyboard, is perhaps even more beautifully rendered by the interplay of two expressive musicians.

Diversions was an early (1960) piece by modern American composer Philip Glass, scored for two flutes (Metlicka and Floeter) and bass trombone (Fry). Its fluid, pastel chord changes were deftly shaped and intoned by the trio, despite the late addition of Floeter to the ensemble.

Houston composer and scholar Aubrey Tucker's Four Cantigas (1992), a set of four movements inspired by an ancient Spanish song style, served as the memorable finale. Led alternately by flute/piccolo (Metlicka) and bass trombone (Fry), each cantiga began in poetic free from, and evolved into metrical dance-like rhythms, showcasing the skills of percussionists DeRoin and Coley. 

The surprisingly lively sound of the room brought out every nuance of technique of the artists, whose impressive range of dynamics and tone sounded full, balanced and fresh. We welcome this superb addition to the Elgin area music scene, and look forward to more concerts of such good design and quality.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Yeehaw! ESO's Western Roundup

The musicians' formal attire reminds you that you're listening to a serious professional symphony orchestra, but the music takes you to the wild west on toe-tapping themes from classic TV and movie westerns. Maestro Stephen Squires set the tone for ESO's "How The West Was Won" by conducting the overture in a ten-gallon hat.

The program features a wide variety of styles within this unique American symphonic music niche, pioneered in the early twentieth century by the groundbreaking works of Aaron Copland, and settling in the scores of western films, TV series, and even commercial spots. The echoes of old-time fiddlers, cavalry bugles, howling coyotes, and horses' gaits inhabit the sprawling melodies and fanfares of works like John William's "The Cowboys," and Bernstein's "The Magnificent Seven."  Excerpts from Dances from Wolves and Wyatt Earp evoke the drama of gunfights and the color of prairie sunsets.

The prodigious harmonica talents of guest artist Mike Runyan add authentic flavor to orchestral arrangements of American classics like Home on the Range and Shenandoah. With dramatic ease, he switches costumes and instruments throughout the program to produce an amazing range of tones that lead the ensemble in knee-slapping hoedowns and melancholy campfire ballads. Playing this repertoire that any living American will know and love, the ESO's expansive musical palette sounds better in person than any studio orchestra you'll hear in your living room or local cinema.

A western music trivia game, symphony video, and a few surprises make "How the West Was Won" a wonderful way to spend two hours this weekend.  Repeat performances are at 8 pm Saturday and 3:30 pm Sunday.