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.