Sunday, November 23, 2014

Resurgent Judson Civic Orchestra Continues to Impress

The fact that a city of 100,000 people can support more than three entirely separate symphony orchestras is amazing in itself, but the incredible regenerative powers of the Judson Civic Orchestra offers proof that Elgin indeed has a distinguished past—and future—as a center for the fine arts.

Formerly known as the Elgin Community College Civic Orchestra and later, the Judson University Community Orchestra, this ensemble has had roots in the area for twenty years or more. Made up of students, teachers, and accomplished amateurs, the Judson Civic Orchestra (JCO) is now a semi-independent organization in residence at Judson University with a core of dedicated artists and a base of community support.

Their nicely programmed Fall Concert, held Sunday afternoon in Judson's Herrick Chapel, held itself to professional standards with three works from the classic repertoire, including an appearance by a guest soloist destined for great achievement. In tuxedos and formal black dress, the players were indistinguishable from their counterparts at the Hemmens or Chicago's Symphony Center.

Judson Civic Orchestra, conducted by Jim Franklin
The arresting opening of Franz Schubert's "Overture to Rosamunde" (1820) was a perfect entree for this well-rehearsed orchestra, which sounds superb at forte and above. In this hall, less friendly to quiet passages and high voices, the more introspective moments of Schubert were, at times, hard to hear in the balcony over a large double bass section.

Yet the comparatively small space exposed intimacies of the music not usually heard in recordings or larger venues. Where other orchestras would take pains to hide the musical seams in these great works, this JCO performance offered a more transparent view into the craft and structure of the music.

Guest artist Jakob Gerritsen, a Jacobs High School senior and winner of the JCO Concerto Competition, presented Concerto No. 2 for Double Bass and Orchestra (1767) by Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf, one of only a few double bass solos in the professional repertoire. Playing entirely from memory, Gerritsen faced the technical challenges with aplomb, and delighted the audience with a rare look at highly skilled playing on an instrument not normally entrusted with melody.

JCO conductor Jim Franklin looked like a seasoned professional marshaling the resources of the 49-piece orchestra through Johannes Brahms' substantial Symphony No. 1 in C Minor (1855-1876). Highlighted by brilliant solos from the principals of nearly every section, this diverse and stalwart group of musicians proved capable of reproducing all the shades and textures of a colorful and historic score.

A civic orchestra brings out the best in a community: the passion of amateur artists, the discipline of educators, and the enthusiasm of audiences, combined with the vision of institutions like Judson University whose ongoing support is vital to the JCO's success. And filling a gap between high school and an elusive professional career, this excellent civic orchestra meets the needs of a growing number of dedicated amateur musicians who call the Fox Valley home. 

In Concert: A Dance and Music Collaboration

Movement is the basis of reality, because it organizes time and space into experiences that have meaning.  For this reason, dance — the art of movement — inhabits the largest possible creative medium, where the rewards (or demands) for an audience involve a complete experience of watching, listening, feeling and of course, moving.

More than twenty artists from Elgin and beyond brought it all together in a dance and music collaboration entitled In Concert at the intimate Elgin Art Showcase Friday night. Produced by Side Street Studio Arts in conjunction with Chamber Music on the Fox, the program featured six performances, including multiple premieres.

Three separate pieces consisting of a dancer-and-musician duo examined the politics of couples, the tension of two-mindedness, and the relationships between passing, sitting still and being noticed. In all three, the movements of the musicians were used to poetic effect, echoing the remarks of choreographer and curator Erin Rehberg: "When I witness live music, I see dance."

In a standout premiere performance, musician-dancer Rachel Elizabeth Maley explored the sound and movement of breath in a piece entitled "Peace Breathing." Her meditation of mostly wordless musical chants rose and fell with each lungful of air, ending in a soft cadence of body percussion.

Megan Beseth, Christine Hands, Sara Nelson, Tiffany Philpot,
Ashley Strickland and Cassie Walker of Core Project.
The artists of Core Project Chicago premiered Children, a work of amazing scale in five parts, incorporating six dancers and seven instrumentalists. Dancing solo at times, in pairs or in unison, the ensemble played off each other in episodes of kinetic development that spoke of friends and enemies, safety and experimentation, fidgeting, and flights of innocent discovery.

They used the entire space, including the floor beneath the orchestra while it was performing Child by David Lang, whose music provided a design of sound that struck the right balance between background and foreground. The same can be said for the lighting effects throughout: done so well that they weren't distinguishable from the rest of the performance.

Sara Sitzer
In the concert finale, five dancers costumed in black worked through the perspectives of Rehberg's Transient Views, set to the unaccompanied cello music of J.S. Bach performed by Sara Sitzer. The dance juxtaposed vertical with horizontal, order with accident, and direction with rotation in a counterpoint of expressions that dared us to focus on any one thing.

The concert ended with Sitzer's dramatically lit solo performance of an excerpt by Bach, reminding us that there is no music without movement, and no movement without creative impulse.

Shifting their roles from arts administrators to artists, Rehberg and Sitzer are using their professional depth and personal gravitational force to produce first-rate performances deserving of much larger audiences, and leading the way for an emerging arts culture in downtown Elgin.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Elgin Symphony Celebrates "America's Musical Treasures"

Forgoing a scholarly explanation, suffice it to say that American music has always been populist—that is, "music of the people"—and the people loved the Elgin Symphony Orchestra's program of "America's Musical Treasures" last weekend at the Hemmens.

A far cry from the stuffy art salons of the Old World, an ESO concert is now a bustling free market of ticket sales, shopping, opinion surveys, food and drink concessions and commercial messaging. It's a shame the ATM was out of service.

Overflowing with talent, this 90-minute program gave a convincing account of American musical genius, highlighting the abundant connections to jazz, dance and the theatre in the work of four great twentieth century composers.

Music Director Andrew Grams conducts the Elgin Symphony Orchestra.
Leonard Bernstein's boisterous "Overture to Candide" (1956) kept us delightfully off balance with its elusive downbeats, while the "Three Dance Episodes from On The Town" (1944) made every toe tap to its irresistible and propulsive riffs. Giving voice to musical ideas as big as New York City, the tightly synchronized ESO made it all look easy.

Authentic orchestral arrangements from Richard Rodgers' South Pacific (1949) and On Your Toes (1936) showcased the talents of this Broadway legend, and the exuberant conducting of Music Director Andrew Grams restored the luster to melodies we are often too quick to write off as high school band fare.

Contributions like those of the unlikely composer Paul Schoenfield are what makes America great: grass roots innovation that makes a difference. Inspired by personal experiences, two of his "Four Parables for Piano and Orchestra" (1983) bravely pushed us out of our comfort zone, but without insult or condescension. 

The unusually large orchestra was equipped with synthesizer, bass guitar, saxophone and an array of percussion in "Senility's Ride" and the quirky "Dog's Heaven." Though some of its unorthodox gestures defy description, Schoenfield's music speaks directly to our intuitions, and the dialect is distinctly American.

Soloist William Wolfram congratulated by
Maestro Andrew Grams
Listeners were overheard complementing the professionalism of piano soloist William Wolfram, whose performance of Schoenfield was entirely on point: vivid and unpretentious.

In one of several remarks given by Maestro Grams throughout the program, he confessed a particular appreciation for the music of Aaron Copland, whose voice is considered by many to be something of an American archetype.

Three movements, taken from Copland's ballet Rodeo (1942) and opera The Tender Land (1954), were combined into a suite for the concert's finale. So revered are these works by artists and audiences that their performances are like liturgical readings, and the ESO always rises to the occasion. After lengthy applause, the audience was treated to a rollicking rendition of Copland's "Hoedown" for an encore.

This month's thematic combination of classics, new music, and a guest artist—with wind and brass sections at their best—make a powerful argument for the future of live symphonic music in Elgin.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Brahms: Symphony No. 1 in C Minor

Legend has it that Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) threw more of his compositions into the fireplace than he ever performed or published. Facts notwithstanding, his reputation for high personal standards—even perfectionism—might explain why his first symphony was twenty-one years in the making.

Another theory suggests that Brahms’ early love of piano solos, songs and small ensembles delayed his acquiring the experience needed to write pure symphonic music for the orchestra.

But it was at age twenty, when Robert Schumann first introduced him to musical society as a young man destined to carry on the great tradition of Beethoven, that he began to carry the weight of great expectations and the persistent fear of failing to meet them.

With a marble bust of Beethoven looking down on him, Brahms began work on what would become Symphony No. 1 perhaps as early as 1854, but he did not produce a complete draft until at least 1868. Even after its premiere in 1876, the symphony was not finished: the original second movement was destroyed and replaced by another.

Brahms acknowledged the musical similarities of his work to the great symphonies of his venerable predecessor, and from its very debut, Brahms’ first symphony acquired the popular nickname of “Beethoven’s Tenth.”

Careful listeners can hear echoes of the famous “fate” motif of the Fifth, horn calls like the Sixth, and shades of the Ninth’s “Ode to Joy.” The seriousness of expression throughout, and suggestion of powerful natural and spiritual forces are indeed worthy of the giant whose musical shadow loomed over Brahms for so long.

But far from imitation, or even homage, Symphony No. 1 solidifies a unique place for Brahms among the greatest musical minds of all time, and along with Bach and Beethoven, the last of the “three B’s.”

Dittersdorf: Concerto No. 2 for Double-bass and Orchestra

A less heard though equally prolific contemporary of Haydn and Mozart, Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf (1739-1799) is also known to have played first violin alongside both of them in what might be considered history’s first Million Dollar Quartet in the musical “small world” of eighteenth-century Vienna.

The mutual influences are apparent throughout Dittersdorf’s substantial catalog of works spanning all the major genres of his time. Adding to his dozens of symphonies, operas, cantatas, and assorted chamber music are concertos for almost every instrument in the early classical orchestra.

The oldest surviving concertos for double-bass are the two by Dittersdorf, written for and premiered by Friedrich Pischelberger, a virtuoso player whose instrument would likely have had five strings and used the “Viennese tuning” (F-A-D-F#-A).

Modern editions of Concerto No. 2 (by far, the better known) are played with “solo tuning” on the double-bass, which retains the now standard string intervals (fourths) raised one step above concert pitch. Thus, the soloist plays a transposing part in the historically accurate key of D, while the orchestra accompanies in the concert key of E.

The technical challenges of the piece include numerous passages in the high register, and the use of double-stops and harmonics. These, along with traditional solo cadenzas offer a rare glimpse of highly skilled playing on an instrument normally relegated to the background.

Not to be overlooked, the beautifully written orchestral accompaniment scored for horns, flutes and strings attests to the considerable talents of a composer to whom history has perhaps not devoted enough space.

Schubert: Overture to "Rosamunde"

The short life of Franz Schubert (1797-1828) produced a treasury of music that reflects the impulsive, opportunistic career of the world’s first freelance composer. Not remembered for his performing talent, Schubert survived on paid commissions, publishing royalties, some teaching appointments and numerous theatrical projects, mostly in and around Vienna.

The piece now known as the “Overture to Rosamunde”—the four-act play by Helmina von Chézy—was neither written nor performed for it. In fact, the overture actually used for Rosamunde in 1823 was itself borrowed from Alfonso und Estrella, Schubert’s 1820 opera which had yet to reach the stage.

When the Gesamtausgabe (“collected works”) of Schubert was published in 1891, the overture to Die Zauberharfe (“The Magic Harp”) was inexplicably included with the incidental music for Rosamunde, thus creating the historical misnomer that has persisted ever since.

Theatrical music, particularly comic opera, was at the height of fashion throughout the Napoleonic empire during Schubert’s formative years, and whether for artistic or commercial reasons, he embraced “the Italian style” in his early overtures.

After an introspective opening section that alternates between ominous chords and melancholy Alpine melodies, Rosamunde tumbles into a lively sequence of rising rhythmic episodes reminiscent of Rossini, whose music Schubert and the rest of Viennese society greatly admired.

Like so many of the unfinished musical sketches and fragments that comprise this great composer’s legacy, the misplaced “Overture to Rosamunde” is essentially Schubertian not only because of the clarity and spontaneity of the music, but because, like the life of the man himself, it is just simply incomplete.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Colorful Art Music of Chicago's Spektral Quartet

While we love to proclaim that art should not be imprisoned within galleries, concert halls, or other rooms of some particular formality, such surroundings are usually excellent places in which to watch and listen. Elgin's Side Street Studio Arts Gallery was an ideal setting for an autumn evening of pure art music performed by the Spektral Quartet.

But the macabre artworks of Side Street's "Something Wicked" exhibit — and the music itself — may have been the only formal elements of this gathering. The musicians blended in with the casual Tuesday night crowd, and friendly greetings were offered by Sara Sitzer, co-artistic director for "Chamber Music on the Fox," organizers of this, the first in a series of chamber music events planned for Elgin venues.

For the next two hours, the artists of Spektral Quartet delivered one amazing performance after another, challenging our notions of what to expect from a string quartet, and pushing the boundaries of what's musically possible.

Aptly named "The Sampler Pack" because of its variety, the nine-part program spanned almost 200 years of music history, and included works ranging in length from five seconds to more than ten minutes, punctuated by impromptu remarks from the musicians themselves. 

Violinists Clara Lyon and J. Austin Wulliman
In contemporary pieces from Philip Glass and Bernard Rands, the ensemble tightly synchronized their body language and breathing, displaying what violinist J. Austin Wulliman later described as a "group mind" that can only be formed after innumerable hours of rehearsal together. Violinist Clara Lyon, the newest member, meshed seamlessly in this, her first appearance with Spektral.

Verses from the late American poet Russell Edson served as lyrics for two parts of a suite by contemporary Chicago composer David Reminick, whose score calls for simultaneous singing, playing and, arguably, musical movement. There may be many great musicians in Chicago, but few are asked to sing and dance while playing passages of such rhythmic and melodic complexity.

For the Spektrals, Art meets Life in a project called "Mobile Miniatures," a commissioned collection of dozens of complete scores by different composers, of suitable length for cell phone ringtones. But the playful concept belies the sophistication of this music, and the skill and sensitivity with which it was played.

Violist Doyle Armbrust and cellist Russell Rolen
Taken from the classic end of the spectrum, selections from Beethoven, Dvorak and Stravinsky amply demonstrate the depth of talent and experience of this quartet. Passages played as expressively as any concert master by violist Doyle Armbrust and cellist Russell Rolen moved us inwardly with intimate phrasings that were never intended for a full orchestra.

Great art challenges us and changes us. Like something conceived by Edgar Allan Poe, whose portraits were displayed on the walls of the gallery, this concert took us to places where music has no pulse, where ugly noises and long silences are strangely beautiful, and our subconscious becomes conscious.

Evocative language and imagery are powerful objects, but it's live performances of such superb quality and authenticity that create a truly transcendent experience. And when this quartet plays, the specter is real.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Agnew's Cello Prevails with Elgin Symphony

Not only the birds, but also the wind, the woods and even the audience added their vocalizations to "Nature's Soundscapes," presented by the Elgin Symphony Orchestra with Resident Conductor Stephen Squires, Saturday night at the Hemmens.

Ottorino Respighi's Gli Uccelli (The Birds, 1928) aptly set the tone with a suite of five short baroque-inspired movements named after the birds whose songs and sounds were imitated throughout. The ESO woodwinds gave brilliant voice to the characterizations (written a bit too persuasively in some places), accompanied by a studious and restrained orchestra.

With this first performance by the ESO, The Birds is a pleasant, listenable and welcome addition, which one patron described as "just beautiful ... so pretty."

The trees, lakes and especially the birds of Finland were loved by Jean Sibelius, whose Symphony No. 5 in E-flat Major was commissioned in honor of his 50th birthday, now an annual national holiday.

The work is important more for its evolution of musical structure than for its style, which adds a modern polish to essentially traditional language. At Squires' insistent direction, the orchestra's sound was quite majestic on the musical hilltops, though introverted at times among the many quiet ponds and frozen lakes of the symphony's three movements.

The wintery images were beautiful, if reserved, and the Hemmens audience responded with their own exercise of Nordic self-control.

Cellist Matthew Agnew performs with Elgin Symphony Orchestra, Stephen Squires, conductor.

The highlight of this program was the Concerto in C Major for Violoncello (ca. 1765) by Franz Josef Haydn, featuring ESO principal cellist Matthew Agnew. At every concert we are reminded of the depth of talent in Elgin's orchestra, but Agnew's performance raises the appreciation to a new level.

Holding his instrument close, Mr. Agnew gave the classic melodies graceful and expressive detail, shifting through octaves with precision and velvety consistency of tone. In the high register, his skill was matched with nuances of shape and timing that any virtuoso would envy.

Throughout his captivating solo passages and cadenzas, the ensemble kept a delicate balance, playing with a deep affection, not merely deep respect.

The audience leapt to its feet with shouts of ecstatic admiration, and demanded three curtain calls for Agnew and Squires, a reception rarely given to any performance. ESO listeners recognize quality when they hear it, and are fortunate to find it every month on a stage so close to home.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Grams Returns to Launch Elgin Symphony Season

Music Director Andrew Grams greets the audience at The Hemmens.
The Elgin Symphony Orchestra began its 2014-2015 season Saturday and Sunday at The Hemmens, led by Music Director Andrew Grams whose numerous appearances elsewhere last season prompted the opening weekend's title: "Andrew Grams is Back!"

The audience rose with the orchestra for the National Anthem, featuring a guest cymbalist—none other than ESO Board Chairperson Karen Schock.

Following a friendly introduction to the all-German program, Grams cued the first of three pieces written as introductory movements of landmark romantic operas. The "Overture to Der Freischutz" (1821) by Carl Maria von Weber and the beautiful "Prelude to Act I, Lohengrin" (1850) by Richard Wagner were given exquisite treatment, but both are a bit slow-developing to kick off a "homecoming" season premiere.

Wagner's ebullient masterpiece "Prelude to Die Meistersinger" (1868) eventually delivered the panache and fanfare to match the hall's enthusiasm for their beloved orchestra and returning maestro.

Beethoven's famous Symphony No. 5 in C Minor (1808) concluded the 90-minute performance. Players even deep within sections were physically animated as Grams masterfully articulated the dramatic phrases and pauses of the work's four movements, accentuating as Beethoven would, aesthetics over technical detail.

Roars of approval from the audience were rewarded with a rousing encore performance of Wagner's "Prelude to Act III, Lohengrin" (1850).

The ESO's world-class guest artists have shown us that great performances rely on an artist's deep knowledge—even memorization—of the music. This concert excelled in part because Maestro Grams never needed his score.

Some say the best time to visit a fine restaurant is when a talented young chef sets out to make a name for himself, since it promises exceptional quality and variety. Likewise, the best time to hear an orchestra is when a new music director plans his first few seasons, and for the ESO that time is now.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Elgin Symphony Spotlights Viennese Music in "Mozart and Bruckner"

The works of two great Austrian composers, written a century apart, provided the season finale for the Elgin Symphony Orchestra with guest conductor and piano artist Ignat Solzhenitsyn, Sunday afternoon at the Hemmens.

A smaller ensemble was gathered around the piano at center stage, whence Solzhenitsyn, his back to the audience, cued the orchestra through Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 12 in A Major (1783), alternately rising to conduct, then sitting to perform a crisp and precise set of three movements. 

Leading gently with body language, section principals synchronized tightly like a quartet, while the maestro exhibited his considerable dual talents without the help of a platform or a baton. 

Ignat Solzhenitsyn piano-conducts the Elgin Symphony Orchestra
in Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 12 in A major.
The chamber-sized orchestra balanced nicely with the soloist, but with some pedaling under a closed lid, the piano sound was not quite dry enough even for a piece that favors the fifth octave. Nonetheless, the audience relished this fresh, authentic performance of a concerto not seen on an ESO program before.

A well-prepared stage crew provides a crucial, and usually invisible, contribution to a concert's success, and this weekend they had to perform their best. A major rearrangement was necessary, as nearly double the number of players were needed after the intermission.

Symphony No. 4 in Eb Major "Romantic" (1881) by Anton Bruckner is the kind of piece that brings in symphony buffs from out of town: its long, complex history is matched by its scale and variety. 

To those less familiar with this 65-minute opus, it's an intriguing mashup of Austro-German influences from before, during and after Bruckner's time. Throughout its four movements, we hear some of Beethoven's high ideals, Wagner's radical harmonies, Schubert's gift for song, and echoes of the Viennese "Waltz King" Johann Strauss II. 

Even glimpses of future modernism, to be later elaborated by a young Gustav Mahler, make surprising entrances during its striking shifts in density, tone and register. To us, the  music is unexpectedly vivid for a composer not known for his storytelling.

Solzhenitsyn was literally on his toes for the entire performance, skillfully summoning forceful fortes from an excellent brass section, and coaxing supple phrases from the winds. Principal horn Greg Flint played prominent solos brilliantly, as the horn section worked its hardest all season. 

Listeners agreed it was uncomfortably long, but they are critiquing the art, not the artists. Month after month, the lengthy standing ovations from a full house attest to the sophistication and affection of the ESO's loyal patrons.

Friday, April 18, 2014

First Congregational Church presents "The Seven Last Words of Christ"

A rare Good Friday performance of Théodor Dubois' oratorio Les Sept Paroles du Christ (1867) was dedicated to the memory of George and Jean Hove by their daughters, thus concluding the free Friday Lenten Concert series at Elgin's First Congregational Church.

The church's own Chancel Choir, directed by FCC Music Director Jon Warfel, was accompanied by an ensemble of instrumentalists and vocal soloists in delivering an excellent 50-minute program in the historic church sanctuary.

Baritone Bradley Morrison gave skilled and compelling performances in numerous solos throughout the eight movement work, joined with excellent solos from Tenor Brian Mengler and Soprano Sally Szudy. The dedication of the twenty-member choir was evident from their performance — the stirring choruses of "The Fifth Word" were especially well intoned and synchronized.

FCC Chancel Choir and Chamber Orchestra perform
"The Seven Last Words of Christ"
A favorable acoustic environment, comfortable seats and clear visibility can make a good concert into a great experience, and First Congregational's interior provides all of these. The fine singing and the room's resonance combined to make the English lyrics, translated by Theodore Baker, easy to understand.

The contributions of the Church to the advancement of western music in all forms cannot be underestimated, and art of this quality and sincerity truly honor the Creator of the "universal language." The music programming of FCC is a great asset to Elgin and a blessing to listeners. Learn more at

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Elgin Symphony Presents a Concert of Understated Excellence

A superb program of Nielsen and Dvorak did all the talking in a casual but outstanding Elgin Symphony matinee Sunday, featuring guest conductor José Luis Gomez.

Two works by the Danish composer Carl Nielsen were heard for the first time by ESO audiences. An orchestra of larger proportions leapt into the first, an opening overture from Nielsen's opera Maskarade (1906) led by a vibrant maestro Gomez, whose natural yet precise conducting ended with a smiling and flamboyant turn toward the audience.

José Luis Gomez conducts Carter Brey and the Elgin
Symphony Orchestra.
Joining the orchestra for Antonin Dvorak's Concerto in B Minor for Cello and Orchestra (1896) was Carter Brey, principal cellist of the New York Philharmonic. Brey listened intently and turned to look at the other players during the first movement's opening, which lifted the entire audience's consciousness of this beautifully played work. 

Shifting fluidly from growling lows to sweetly lyrical highs, Brey displayed great rapport with Gomez, and also with a particularly sympathetic wind section, playing so expressively throughout that one listener was moved to say, "I could almost understand the words ..." Brey's untucked shirt and relaxed comportment signalled that this virtuoso's performance would speak for itself, and it did so eloquently. 

The delightful Symphony No. 2 (1902) is one of Nielsen's growing number of works that are gaining new interest worldwide. The four movements, inspired by the Four Temperaments of ancient psychology, depart from classical symphonic conventions and explore shades of human nature the way a Freudian therapist might: through a network of imagery and associations. 

The ESO was incredibly well-rehearsed for this Elgin premiere, and the musical language of Nielsen proved to be endlessly fascinating. It was an impressive showing for Gomez, whose conducting style exhibited its own four-way humanistic balance of head, hands, heart and hips.

It is also a credit to the considerable talent and skill of the ESO and staff that guest artists of this caliber continue to bring their world-class performances to downtown Elgin.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Elgin Symphony Expands Repertoire in "Beethoven Inspired" Concert

An orchestra of smaller, eighteenth century proportions anchored last weekend's eclectic program of classic, sacred and contemporary works — all first performances by the ESO — conducted by Chicago Maestro Andrew Lewis.

An excellent case for contemporary music was laid out by three concise, aptly-named movements from Brick (2005), a suite composed by Lewis' UIC colleague, Marc Mellits. "Red Hammer" joined slabs of complex rhythm and texture, and launched splinters of woodwind like a carpenter's chisel, while the duets of "Refrigerator Wisdom" were as sweet as a mother's voice, embraced by dense, cool and warm string passages that were beautifully harmonized and evocative. 

The playful, perpetual motion of "Jacob's Ladder" shimmered with iridescent colors over a fascinating boogie bass line. A gracious Mr. Mellits bowed at the hall's applause for a very refreshing, listenable, and American-sounding concert opener.

Beethoven's Symphony No. 2 (1802) was given a respectful revival, almost compelling enough to distract us from the 150 empty chairs looming upstage. Lewis' conducting was never indecorous, and the playing was rarely imprecise throughout this less-played work, whose generally upbeat tenor is colored by just a few prescient moments of restless worry that would later become a larger part of Beethoven's famous musical palette.

Elgin Choral Union, the UIC Symphonic Choir and Elgin
Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Andrew Lewis
Once those empty chairs were filled with the vocalists of the Elgin Choral Union joined by the UIC Symphonic Choir, the magnificent sight was surpassed only by the sound of Cherubini's revered Requiem in C Minor (1816). The solemn score and homophonic singing blended superbly, the conducting was cogent, and the delivery by the three combined ensembles was sincere and expressive. Beethoven and Brahms were so moved by Cherubini's music, they all but imitated it; we have but to rejoice at the chance to hear it just as they heard it: in a live performance.

Although this program seemed a bit transparent, the impressive Requiem was well worth planning around, and the inclusion of contemporary music like Brick is encouraging. The ESO continues to be an amazing arts value, unique in Chicagoland, and distinctive, high-quality performances like these deserve to be heard.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Elgin Symphony Orchestra's "Tour of Italy" Concert Features World Premieres

In an age of eight-beat riffs and six-second viral videos, it's a risk to present new music for the concert hall, demanding great faith in musicians, composers and audiences. The ESO courageously performed two new works this weekend by composer and trumpet virtuoso Brandon Ridenour, with guest conductor Tania Miller.

Ridenour's amazing technique sparkled in his transcription of Vivaldi's operatic aria "Agitata da due venti," (1735) originally a difficult soprano vocal whose ornate leaps and flights could not have been played by the trumpets of the past. But the solo translates beautifully into brass, and its strings-only accompaniment creates an authentic setting in which to hear this baroque gem in a brilliant new way.

Brandon Ridenour performs with the Elgin
Symphony Orchestra, conducted by
Tania Miller
The attention-grabbing start of Ridenour's new work Fantasy Variations on a Theme by Paganini heralds the trumpet of the future, exploring new accents if not new language that frees it to speak beyond its usual ceremonial fanfares. Ridenour inhabits every tone and temper of his horn with exquisite control and focus, and his orchestral writing is high quality. They say good music is "music you want to hear again." Though a bit didactic at times, this "Fantasy" demands further listening.

Canadian Maestra Tania Miller's conducting was scholarly at first and warmed with the audience's appreciation, which was rewarded with an encore trumpet performance of "Carnival of Venice."

The most Italianate piece of the evening was its delightful opener, Rossini's overture to L'Italiana in Algeri (1813), but it only hinted at a larger repertoire by Verdi and Puccini who were missed on this program.  

Taking their place was Aus Italien, (1887) a lengthy symphonic fantasy by a young Richard Strauss recalling his visit to Italy. Shades of his future greatness were clearly evident in the imaginative score, but at times you felt as if a dear friend was telling you about his vacation in too much detail. Nonetheless, the orchestra showed precision and great flourishes of individual talent in this wind-friendly piece.

No tour of Italy would be complete without a little commotion. Friday's fire evacuation and Saturday's audio miscue only served to highlight the professionalism of the ESO staff and artists. The true test of the audience's depth is when they continue to flock to concerts for programs of widely varying period, style and genre, including that most daring of all categories: new music.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Elgin Symphony Concert Takes On Scottish Flavor

Scotland has inspired great works by artists from Shakespeare to Sting, and foreign invaders from the last twelve centuries can attest: it's the kind of place that's nice to visit (but you may not want to live there). The Elgin Symphony Orchestra's "Scottish Fantasy" program took a full concert hall on just such a visit Saturday night, in the company of great composers and an array of talented musicians.

The Land of the Mountain and the Flood (1887) by Scottish-born composer Hamish MacCunn set the tone with a sweet, but restrained overture whose folk-inspired imagery of lochs and glens is a fine example of the nationalist sentiments that were prevalent among composers during this period. Elgin, too, has some Scottish roots, and the ESO's attentive rendition made it clear that the musicians love these melodies as much as their listeners do.

The highlight of the evening was violinist Michael Ludwig's riveting performance of the Scottish Fantasy (1880) by German composer Max Bruch. The work is more an exhibit of legendary German craftsmanship than Scottish folksong, but this stylistic fusion takes the soloist from peat smoky pipe tunes through romantic airs and astonishing feats of fiddling. Ludwig moved expressively around the stage in his delivery, at times almost dancing, which captivated the audience in a way that no recording could ever reproduce.

One need not be Scottish or German to feel moved by a masterpiece like Felix Mendelssohn's "Scottish" Symphony No. 3 (1842). The ensemble was the star of this program finale, and one wonders whether it's Mendelssohn who makes the ESO sound so good, or vice-versa. When the artists grasp a piece like this, the difference is apparent in their timing, intonation and animation. The energetic new ESO Music Director Andrew Grams, himself a violinist, displays an obvious affinity for his firsts and seconds, turning to enunciate each feeling and phrase of his lucid interpretation.

One patron was overheard to say the first half of the program was "a little schmaltzy; too romantic." We disagree, but it's loyal subscribers like these who make the ESO experience — including its pre- and post-concert social scene — as stimulating for the mind as well as for the senses. Next season promises more excellent programs featuring Beethoven, Copland and Smetana, and all this, as close to home as downtown Elgin.