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.