Sunday, October 6, 2013

Grams a "Titan" in Debut as Elgin Symphony Director

A new direction could be seen as well as heard in the Elgin Symphony Orchestra's season opener Saturday night at the near-capacity Hemmens Cultural Center. 

Regular patrons noticed the changes to the orchestra's former layout, with basses on the left and low brass on the right. Cellos and second violins swapped positions, following a recent trend toward authenticity which suited this weekend's program especially well.

In his conducting debut as ESO Music Director, the dashing Andrew Grams preceded his opening remarks with a gracious rendition of the National Anthem, bringing both the audience and the musicians to their feet. His welcome was instantly endearing as he invited the community to join him and the ESO on a "musical journey" — a theme echoed by his message in the printed program guide which, like last year, was strong on content but noticeably weak on ad sales.

The two concert works by George Gershwin marked an excellent place to begin this journey, as they represent a uniquely American blend of jazz, popular song, and classical rigor.   Many listeners can only relate to symphonic music in the context of motion picture soundtracks, thus the attention-grabbing Second Rhapsody, taken from a 1932 movie score, fit the occasion perfectly. The powerful strides of solo pianist Terrence Wilson, along with colorful clarinet and muted trumpet remind us why we never tire of Gershwin's portrayals of the raucous counterpoint of twentieth century urban life.

Variations on "I Got Rhythm" showcased the professionalism of the ESO, which sounded like a fine studio orchestra, but at times overpowered Wilson's effervescent piano, making it difficult to hear during tutti sections. Grams' conducting was sometimes animated and evocative, and other times polished and pragmatic throughout the first half of the program.

After intermission, thoughtful remarks by Elgin Mayor David Kaptain highlighted the history and partnership of the city and its ensemble, noting that many of the ESO's artists serve the local community as teachers. One local student symbolically passed the baton to new Music Director Andrew Grams, who becomes only the fourth in 64 years.

It's clear why Maestro Grams is so popular with the musicians and Board (as he will be with audiences). He seems to cherish his audience, engaging us without condescending; and his style is spontaneous and casual but still elegant, opting for a suit and necktie instead of a white bow and tails.

The program concluded with Symphony No. 1 "Titan" by Gustav Mahler, an immense work requiring nearly double the typical number of wind instruments, and lasting the better part of an hour. Similar in concept and reminiscent of well-known works by Mahler's contemporary Richard Strauss, "Titan" is very listenable as it travels through a wide expanse of space, scale and setting. Despite the occasional imprecisions that creep into early fall performances, the brilliant section work by the ESO winds was matched by Maestro Grams' dramatic interpretation and eloquent left hand. With its changing moods, diction, turns and false endings, Mahler's "Titan" was a superb choice of overture to what we hope are many successful seasons with Andrew Grams and the Elgin Symphony Orchestra.