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.