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.