Monday, December 7, 2015

Vocal Harmony Comes "Home For The Holidays"

If you've ever mourned the loss of old-fashioned, high-quality entertainment, take heart. In an age when entertainment is measured by its shock value, precocity and media shadow, "Home For The Holidays" is a class act in a class by itself.

This review of traditional pop music from the golden age of show business is performed by a company of four multi-talented artists who remain on pitch, on cue, and on point during more than 25 numbers that last a continuous eighty minutes.

Flora Ann McIntyre, Jennifer Mather, Michael Ehlers and Jim Goodrich are each highly trained professionals with extensive stage experience, whose excellence of craft is exceeded only by their charisma and group chemistry.

Flora Ann McIntyre, Michael Ehlers, Jenny Mather and Jim Goodrich
perform in "Home For The Holidays" at the Elgin Art Showcase.

From the Great War's USO shows, to fabulous fifties Miami, to December in Vermont, moments of lively and well-written comedic banter paces us through skillful arrangements of classics, standards and forgotten gems. The quartet sails through complex harmonies, key changes and flights of a cappella, synced with a variety of dance, props and costume changes.

Unlike the instant art (just add water!) and microwaveable music we're used to, this is Baked Alaska -- it's the real thing, and you can taste the difference.

Musical director Bob Kresz is an amazing one-man band, simultaneously handling sound tracks and playing multiple voices on keyboards. The technical production is simple, as it should be with this much talent on display.

"Home For The Holidays" is the kind of show that could become a perennial favorite for large repeat audiences, like the Nutcracker or the Rockettes. We hope this show never goes away, and might next year make one of Elgin's larger venues it's home for the holidays.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Glass: String Quartet No. 2 ("Company")

One of the most influential American composers of the twentieth century, if not the most “popular,” is Philip Glass (b. 1937), a descendant of Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe (as were Copland, Gershwin and Bernstein).

At age 78, Glass has been a prolific composer since about 1960, and has created works in a tremendous variety of forms and styles. Often summed up as “minimalist” composer, he prefers to describe his style as “music with repetitive structures,” and even that does not apply sufficiently to his entire catalog of work which is still growing after 55 years.

Glass has often collaborated with artists of every non-musical genre, as well as with musicians working along the edges of popular music like Brian Eno, David Bowie and David Byrne. His first string quartet was written in 1966 after he worked on an experimental film score with the Indian sitarist Ravi Shankar. Exposure to the “additive rhythms” of Indian music would become the most powerful and definitive influence on his music for the next three decades.

The four movements of the String Quartet No. 2 were written for the theatrical production of Company (1983) by Samuel Beckett. At first, Glass considered it incidental music (“like salt and pepper ... just something for the table”), but published it in 1986 as a string quartet and an arrangement for string orchestra.

Just as his minimalist phase gave way to his characteristic non-narrative rhythmic style, his art continued to evolve to encompass choral works, opera, and symphonies. In later years, Glass found renewed interest in historical forms, lyricism, and conventional melody. In his 2015 memoir Words Without Music, Glass says his favorite composer was Franz Schubert, with whom he shares the same birthday.

Williams: Star Wars Suite

Few people alive today will not recognize the music from the 1977 blockbuster movie Star Wars, which along with 1975’s Jaws turned the names John Williams (b. 1932), George Lucas and Steven Spielberg into household words ­— and Hollywood gold.

What fans of his movie scores may not know is that he started out as a talented recording musician whose playing is heard on scores by Jerry Goldsmith, Elmer Bernstein (no relation to Leonard Bernstein) and Henry Mancini. The famous opening riff of Peter Gunn was actually played by John Williams.

His composing career first gained traction with well known television themes from the 1960’s for shows like Gilligan’s Island and Lost in Space. The first of his 49 Academy Awards nominations came in 1967 for his score adaptation for Valley of the Dolls and he is now the second most recognized artist by the Academy, behind Walt Disney.

In addition to his famous original scores for Superman, the Harry Potter and Indiana Jones series, Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan (among many others), he has written concertos for some of the world’s finest soloists, a symphony, and numerous works for official occasions. His accomplishments include many awards from around the world, honorary degrees and Hall of Fame inductions. In 2005, the American Film Institute designated Star Wars as the greatest American film score of all time.

All this success is owed to his gift for creating musical imagery of grand scale and force in the manner of Richard Strauss, and his connecting succinct musical ideas to characters and themes in the fashion of great programmatic composers like Richard Wagner.

Besides composing, Williams has been a distinguished guest conductor with many of the world’s greatest orchestras, and succeeded Arthur Fiedler as the Principal Conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra, a post he held from 1980-1993. As Laureate Conductor, he continues working with the Boston Pops, and frequently performs at the site of Leonard Bernstein’s final concert: the Tanglewood Estate.

The next installment of the famous series — Star Wars: The Force Awakes — is scheduled for release in December 2015, with music written and conducted by — who else? — John Williams.

Gershwin: An American in Paris

Jazz is considered America’s unique contribution to world music, and George Gershwin (1898-1937) was an important pioneer in its development, by combining the blue notes of American roots music with European-style harmonies.

The French fell in love with jazz in the 1920’s, perhaps because its colorful chords sounded like natural extensions of Debussy, Satie and Ravel. Gershwin made multiple trips to Paris during this period, seeking tutelage from Ravel or Nadia Boulanger (both of whom turned him down), and it was these visits which inspired this symphonic poem.

Gershwin had demonstrated an ability to capture musical impressions of haphazard New York City life in his earlier Rhapsody in Blue (1924), which was criticized by classical purists for its lack of discernible form. In applying this gift of urban portraiture to Paris, he offered no apology, writing “My purpose here is to portray the impression of an American visitor in Paris as he strolls about the city and listens to various street noises and absorbs the French atmosphere.” To achieve some of these effects, the score calls for instruments not normally found in a classical orchestra: saxophones, taxi horns and a wide array of percussion.

Gershwin also described his original concept for the piece as a “rhapsodic ballet” because of its free development of scene, mood and gesture. Ironically, his use of rubato (fluid, discretionary changes in tempo) was generally intended to make the point that jazz need not be strictly metrical for dancing purposes.

And An American in Paris indeed became a ballet in the climactic scene of the 1951 film of the same name, starring Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron. The sixteen-minute sequence cost half a million dollars to produce. The film was recently reborn as a Broadway musical, which opened at the Palace Theatre in April 2015, and runs through June 2016.

Bernstein: Symphonic Dances from "West Side Story"

Standing tall in the middle of a career marked by numerous “firsts” is Leonard Bernstein’s music for the now legendary musical West Side Story. Conceived as a modernized version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet — set in the culture of New York City ethnic street gangs — it was perfectly timed to appeal to late fifties audiences.

Nearly ten years in on-and-off development, the musical was completed concurrently with Bernstein’s other best-known work, the operetta Candide (1956), and individual songs were actually exchanged between the two.

The original score for West Side Story was orchestrated primarily by Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal, with later edits by Bernstein, perhaps because of his extremely busy conducting, recording and broadcasting schedule. Despite the great appeal of his music among audiences, Bernstein was often criticized for borrowing and adapting musical ideas rather than developing an original voice of his own, and he attributed this to not spending enough time concentrating on the art. He also was fond of saying his only real composition teacher was Aaron Copland, with whom he never actually studied.

The stunning success of the 1961 soundtrack album for West Side Story was not the only impetus for Bernstein’s arrangement of nine movements of its music that year: he was also celebrating a renewed contract as Music Director of the New York Philharmonic. The Symphonic Dances are ordered for purely musical reasons and do not follow the original plot sequence.

In addition to his countless recordings, media appearances, books, lectures, teaching and conducting positions, Bernstein composed an impressive catalog of works in all of the major forms: operas, symphonies, ballets, musicals, film scores, chamber music, song cycles, and more. This sum total of work places him among the most important American musicians of any century, and his unique gift for incorporating popular musical language into classical forms and instrumentation has made him the second most often played U.S. composer in American concert halls.

Copland: Fanfare for the Common Man

Soon after the start of the Second World War, Aaron Copland (1900-1990) was one of eighteen American composers invited by conductor Sir Eugene Goossens (1893-1962) to write patriotic fanfares to begin the concerts in the Cincinnati Orchestra’s '42-'43 season. Goossens wanted to produce "stirring and significant contributions to the war effort" as he had done so effectively with the help of British composers during World War I.

Copland's piece was titled as a reference to a famous 1942 speech given by Vice President Henry Wallace, who proclaimed the arrival of the "century of the common man." With Copland's vigorous approval, Goossens scheduled the premiere for March 13, 1943 as a tribute to the common man at income tax time.

Goossens left Cincinnati for Australia in 1946, and Copland was one of nine composers who co-wrote the farewell piece, Variations on a Theme by Eugene Goossens. In Sydney, Goossens would later be influential in the development of the Sydney Opera House, but a scandalous love affair clouded the rest of his career.

Copland fared better, despite the suspicions later placed upon him by the House Un-American Activities Committee during the Red Scare. Ironically, he had by that time completed the most prolific period of his career, including such definitively American works as Rodeo (1942), A Lincoln Portrait (1942), and Appalachian Spring (1944).

So stately and momentous are the chords, crashes and timpani strokes of the Fanfare that it has been quoted many times in popular music, television, film and official occasions throughout the western world. Copland himself borrowed it as material for his Third Symphony, in which it appears prominently in the final movement.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Janus Theatre's "King of Shadows"

When you see Janus Theatre Company's Chicago-area premiere of "King of Shadows" at the Elgin Art Showcase this month, you don't have to answer whether you believe in a place of darkness whose forces are trying to break through to our world, but you will be asked that question — asked by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa's tightly wound script and an excellent cast. The two-act, two-hour play is a perfect pick for this company named after the god of transitions.

The story revolves around Nihar, a runaway whose back story combines graphic accounts of abuse and vivid descriptions of a shadowy netherworld, ruled by a king and queen determined to snatch him back. When he seeks help from Jessica, a graduate student in social work, her world soon becomes darkened by stormy relationships and the fog of doubt.

Christopher Sylvie, Melody Jefferies, Jaime Patriarca and Joe Cattoggio in
Janus Theatre Company's production of "King of Shadows."

Jaime Patriarca (as Jessica) layers her character with veneers of scholar, girlfriend, and big sister but these do not conceal Jessica's tendency to see the people around her as objects for study and documentation rather than personal connections. Patriarca's overthinking social worker who is reluctant to actually touch people creates a delicious contradiction.

Joe Cattoggio plays Eric, Jessica's live-in boyfriend who confesses he became a cop in order to conquer his own inner darkness. Cattoggio shows us Eric's mixed feelings about the job during scenes of bravado foiled by faraway looks of uncertainty, the body language of compromise, and putting his uniform on and taking it off.

Little sister Sarah, brought to life by Melody Jefferies, is a restless, sexually ambivalent teen who is constantly out of place — the wrong city, the wrong street, the wrong room, or the wrong time. Sarah's preoccupation with a tragic past, alternative realities, dreams and the spirit world is brilliantly captured in the breath control of Jefferies' colorful delivery.

Christopher Sylvie is the mysterious teen Nihar, who trades sex in the San Francisco streets by day and hides in buildings at night. Despite all the damage done in his short life, Nihar is the most sure of himself, and Sylvie's forceful and unblinking portrayal persuade us that "facts" cannot always be trusted, and the truth is whatever you're willing to believe.

Like a conflict of worlds, or competition of darkness and light, scenes develop rapidly in "King of Shadows" as characters exchange positions of power through arguing, bargaining, accusing and acquiescing. Well directed movement gives shape to dialogue-heavy scenes that are sometimes too quick to escalate, and poetic monologues and excellent lighting effects provide welcome relief from the constant dramatic tension. 

Don't see "King of Shadows" if you expect to troll social media between laughs and leave with a happy ending. But if you want an intimate theater experience, with superb production and great acting, see if this play doesn't convince you that we are all orphans, trying to escape the fears and self-doubt that rule over us.

Weekend performances of "King of Shadows" directed by Sean Hargadon run November 6-22 at the Elgin Art Showcase.  For more information and tickets, go to

Monday, October 5, 2015

Legendary Cellist Lynn Harrell Graces the Elgin Symphony Stage

The audience left the Hemmens Main Hall brimming with excitement Sunday as the Elgin Symphony Orchestra wrapped up its opening weekend of Ives, Brahms and Tchaikovsky, conducted by ESO Music Director Andrew Grams.

After an uplifting rendition of the National Anthem, the program started with Variations on America (1892) by a teenaged Charles Ives, composed originally for the organ. It's the kind of piece that benefits from an introduction, and an affable Grams relaxed the concert's usual decorum to share a few words about the composer and his work, illustrated with musical excerpts played by the orchestra.

The 1964 arrangement by William Schuman remarkably preserves the sound of two keyboards with pedals, evoking the humor of circus organs or silent movies, and the orchestration is reminiscent of P.D.Q. Bach. But in comedy we hear the truth, and Ives' genius was indeed ahead of its time.

Joining the ESO for two works by Tchaikovsky was Lynn Harrell, known in music circles as the "Dean of American Cellists," whose 50-year career includes appearances on the world's greatest concert stages, the Grammy Awards broadcast and the Vatican.

Cellist Lynn Harrell performs Tchaikovsky's Andante cantabile
from String Quartet No. 1 with Elgin Symphony Orchestra.
(Photo by James Harvey)
The eight-part Variations on a Rococo Theme (1877) was a showcase for Harrell's effortless technique. Bowing from the wrist, his delicate high passages were like an angel's laughter: lighter than air. Across the low register, his timing and placement was like Russian ballet dancers barely touching the floor. 

Even subtler still was the Andante cantabile from String Quartet No. 1 (1871), in which the orchestral accompaniment was impossibly soft and superbly conducted. Harrell seemed to work from a place beyond method or doctrine, quoting from memory, playing the whole instrument as easily as exhaling a breath.

The ESO has welcomed its share of rising stars, but the elocution of an artist with Harrell's experience is in a class by itself.

Walking briskly to the podium after intermission, Maestro Grams launched his colorful and emotive 45-minute interpretation of Brahms' Symphony No. 1 in C Minor. The well-known piece rejoiced in a wealth of understanding and affection within the ensemble. Excellent wind solos attested to the players' exceptional preparation for the start of a concert season.

Elgin Symphony Orchestra Music Director Andrew Grams.
(Photo by James Harvey)
Like a brilliant film director working with great actors, Grams connected with every section in a creative two-way dialogue of motion and sound, producing a vivid musical gestalt. Only in the hands of diligent and devoted artists like these would Brahms' familiar four-movement plot (and its Beethovenian subtext) seem new again. 

"Each concert is better than his last," said one awestruck musician in the audience. Grams continues to surprise listeners with the breadth of his repertoire and depth of his ability, and we are eager to learn whether the well has any bottom.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Core Project Chicago at Elgin Fringe Festival

With a piece that could be subtitled "Allergy Season," "Clean and Dirty," or "Hard Core Campfire," Core Project Chicago presented "<=2" at the 2015 Elgin Fringe Festival.

Ostensibly a collection of short performances related by their similar durations (less than or equal to, but not more than 2 minutes), a cast of recurring characters and themes provided unexpected synergy.

Core Project Chicago performs at the 2015 Elgin Fringe Festival.
A busy bee, a naked accordionist and a janitor played under fair and gray skies as a continuous series of comedic skits tumbled across the stage, punctuated by interludes of dance, in a collage of "found concepts."

A thread of bees, pollen, sneezing and nose-wiping connected with sweeping, washing, and soiling again, like scenes from a childhood summer camp. Zany contests involving audience members added a "talent show" quality, and occasional bullying and snarky on-stage banter showed that even rehearsals can be a performance object.

Though campfire skits may not be among the classic forms or archetypes, they are a language that speaks to everyone, and it reminds us that at some level, imaginative play is the essence of all art.

Project606 Dance at Elgin Fringe Festival

Seven identically-costumed dancers filled the stage at Imago Studios Saturday in a performance of "Things That Look Like Other Things" at the Elgin Fringe Festival.

Throughout this 45-minutes suite of three related works, internal and external forces powered the movements of the ensemble, beginning with a single-file summation of childlike gestures. A scene of dancers seated on chairs as though in a classroom matured into a fanciful ballroom atmosphere in which the chairs were swung and embraced like imaginary partners, then dropped.

Project606 Dance performs at the 2015 Elgin Fringe Festival.
Photo by Scales Off Media.
The search for individual identity connected the middle sequence as four dancers alternately synchronized as a group, then separated into individual expressions, and returned to the group structure again. At times, duos and trios seemed to be embracing and resisting each other at the same time, evoking the universal experience of coming of age within and without a family.

This study of human relationships would not be complete without addressing the individual in society, and thus the dance developed ideas of cooperation/competition, giving/taking, and leading/following with beautiful and eloquent forms.  Themes of salvation came in and out of focus as images of baptism and rescue. The chair device reappeared in the finale as the dancers expressed ideas of caretaking and support. 

A Fringe Festival is an excellent place to sample a variety of art forms, and this piece offered an accessible, coherent concept that was easy on the eyes and the ears—a great fit and welcome addition to the program.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

FoolSize Theatre at Elgin Fringe Festival

A quick lesson in British slang was needed by only a few of the curious who attended "Women Who Wank," an improvised performance by Joanne Tremarco of UK's FoolSize Theatre at the Elgin Fringe Festival.

While many of the shows at the Fest are more art than performance, "Wank" was pure performance to a degree of style and spontaneity we rarely have the good fortune to see.

Quick-witted Tremarco conjured comedic naughty bits of varying size and depth from reactions elicited directly from the audience with the fearless energy of a street performer. She took on pornography, autoeroticism, and childhood sex education using her pink dress pulled over her head as a gigantic vaginal—er, visual aid.

Working from a mental map of feminist topics in Herstory, she navigated adroitly through darker themes like rape, exploitation and female circumcision with a disarming humor and magnetic personality. Men and women both found it possible to divulge a few of their own personal secrets, which served to propel Tremarco ever further toward the show's climax.

To be clear, it required the help of everyone in the audience ... and about 2 minutes of heavy breathing.

Because Why Not? Theatre Company at Elgin Fringe Festival

The exclusive pair bond is a social phenomenon in humans and other species, but is it distinguished above other family arrangements? That's one of the questions posed by "Paradigm," a world premiere performance by Because Why Not? Theatre Company at Elgin Fringe Festival.

Because Why Not? Theatre Company performs "Paradigm"
at the 2015 Elgin Fringe Festival.
A superb script by Director Shannon Geier follows two generations struggling to understand and accept (or reject) each other's internalized definitions of marital commitment. The friction begins in the opening scene as polyamorous Simon (Daniel A. Scurek, Jr.) shows up unwelcome at his son Cal's traditional wedding.

Creatively staged split scenes with separate couples exchanging a counterpoint of incisive dialogue highlighted the ambiguity of terms like love, union, and family. As the piece develops, characters face forward and alternately address the audience and the other characters with provocative points of fact.

The conversation continued after every performance as Geier and the cast engaged the audience in discussion, eliciting a range of questions and observations that echoed and further informed the play's themes.  Is our preference for monogamy instinctive or learned?  How much self-denial is required to partner with someone else?

The finest element of "Paradigm" is its poetic, timely and intelligent script, an important premiere for Elgin Fringe Festival which deserves a bigger stage.

Theatre of Self Doubt at Elgin Fringe Festival

Combining action, speech and recorded narrative, Stephen Gomez effectively played multiple roles in his one-man show "Drawn Dead" this weekend at Elgin Fringe Festival.

The plot begins as Gomez walks off a monotonous office job to reassess the direction of his life. Turning to his family's Las Vegas roots, he takes up high-stakes poker, then walks away from it again, multiple times on a journey that crisscrosses the Pacific Northwest.

Steven Gomez performs at the 2015 Elgin Fringe Festival.
Photo by Scales Off Media.
At times, all the drama is happening only in his mind, whose thought process is broadcasted as a play-by-play commentary heard over the P.A. Competing voices—including his own spoken monologues—tug him in different directions in a kind of bipolar cycle of blind confidence and crushing self-doubt.

From scene to scene, the words of a tournament poker author reappear as mantras, fueling his drive toward the next big gamble: "The cards you're dealt are immaterial" and "You fold, you learn nothing."

Elements of pantomime, acting and audiobooks enhance a compelling, original story which proves that the better your ability to read your opponent's bluff, the more you will doubt yourself. In the end, Gomez questions even the validity of that lesson in a dramatic fistfight with his own conscience.

"Theatre of Self-Doubt" is alternately coarse and surprisingly subtle, thematically well-developed, and like seven-card stud, much more complex than meets the eye.

David Boyle at Elgin Fringe Festival

Drawing on a wealth of personal material, comedic storyteller David Boyle captivated audiences in three shows entitled "Pizza & Pop (and Church)" at Elgin Fringe Festival.

Boyle's Catholic school upbringing and ongoing career as a church musician are a fertile source of interconnected anecdotes that he recounts exuberantly with sound effects, voice characterizations and carefully placed gestures.

Hitting his pace like the writer of book you just can't put down, Boyle crafts his stories from vivid, sensory observations of the details that make an ordinary experience memorable, like the sound of eating potato chips during a play, the looks of a monstrous school teacher, or the smell of a "senior moment."

David Boyle performs at the 2015 Elgin Fringe Festival.
Photo by Scales Off Media.

But good stories become great when constructed with the proper sense of scale and proportion, and Boyle's tales reveal a well-developed discipline of structure that would hold up to even the driest analysis. Though to an audience, they just seem fascinating.

Adding to his occasional interjections of song, Boyle's mastery of the music of the spoken word is evident in the timing, pitch and tempo of his delivery. It's a voice you never grow tired of listening to.

Yielding every so often to confessions of guilt or grief, Boyle is part homilist, but his message is ultimately a joyous one, beautifully illustrated with revelations of the humanity—and the humor—that connects us. 

Independent Players at Elgin Fringe Festival

If one could draw a line from Gertrude Stein to Monty Python's Flying Circus, it would pass through Eugène Ionesco's 1950 absurd play The Bald Soprano, staged by the Independent Players Friday at Elgin Fringe Festival.

Two (or three?) couples in a suburban London parlor are essentially a talking tableau against which language itself becomes the protagonist.  Completely awash in prattle, the narrative is just barely conventional enough to explain the presence of actors, yet the characters are strangely absent.

The Independent Players perform The Bald Soprano at the 2015 Elgin Fringe Festival.
The long scenes of loquacity were handled skillfully by the Players, whose delivery of sometimes meaningless lines shifted attention to the art of enunciation. The action, minimal but well-rehearsed, was welcome relief from a script so dense and disconnected it sounds like a memorized dictionary.

In our age of smartphone-powered distractions, we like to lament the loss of conversation and the intimacy it produces between people. But Soprano suggests this is not a new problem: people can converse for years and still not recognize each other—or themselves.

In the end, as the dialogue becomes even more random, structureless and repetitive, the speakers seem to form a collective mind, but it's both more and less than a consensus. Walking in circles, shouting in unison, they finally agree—on precisely nothing.

Though avant-garde theatre is one of those genres that people love to hate, it belongs in a Fringe Festival and the well-directed Players make it worth a look.

Kelly Bolton at Elgin Fringe Festival

Life is surprisingly full for each of the quirky characters played by Kelly Bolton in her one-woman show "Lonely, Flirty, Weird" Friday night at Elgin Fringe Festival. Her string of almost twenty 1-3 minute humorous vignettes developed those themes with well-written monologues, costumes, props and vocal affectations.

"Thirty-five and Single" might have been the center of gravity for a wide range of personalities preoccupied with relationships, sex, food and awkward conversation.

Kelly Bolton performs at the 2015 Elgin Fringe Festival.
Photo by Scales Off Media.

A muumuu-clad, coupon-clipping housewife offered a little TMI to open and close the show. During the intervening 35 minutes we met a lady mad scientist, a nervous airline traveler, a talkative cinema patron, and a barista with imaginary animal boyfriends.

Bolton has a gift for capturing glimpses of human eccentricities in these brief but well-composed snapshots, complete with closing captions that are essential to the effect.

We could construct a sophisticated subtext around a theory of survival that surfaces in her animated riffs on diversion, impersonation and self-defense (though never hiding).

But that would be seriously overthinking what is really a clever concept album of sassy, funny sketches with a beat you can dance to.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Elgar: Variations on an Original Theme ("Enigma")

The pre-eminent figure in Britsh music from 1900-1930 was a self-taught Roman Catholic musician from rural Worcestershire, who hadn’t experienced much success before age forty. Edward Elgar (1857-1934) would eventually achieve widespread fame across three continents, numerous official honors and a title of nobility, though he always considered himself an outsider.

In America, Elgar is best known for a section of his Pomp and Circumstance No. 1 in D Major (1901), which has been played at graduation ceremonies since 1905, when Elgar himself received an Honorary Doctorate from Yale University.

In England, lyrics by A.C. Benson transformed this same tune into “Land of Hope and Glory” a patriotic anthem so popular that it now compares in stature to “God Save the Queen.”

What first launched this remarkable career was Variations on an Original Theme (1899), his orchestral suite of 14 musical sketches based on a single theme, each inspired by an anecdote or personality trait of one of his close friends. The theme is presented in the first six measures of part one, above which appears the composer’s annotation: “Enigma.” The fourteen variations are named as follows.
I. “C.A.E” A four-note melodic fragment repeated here was once whistled by the composer arriving home to see his wife, Caroline Alice Elgar.

II. “H.D.S-P.” The pianist Hew David Steuart-Powell warmed up his fingers by playing scales on the keyboard, remembered by Elgar in this sketch.

III. “R.B.T” Author Richard Baxter Townshend’s portrayal of an old man character in amateur plays relied on a comedic vocal delivery, parodied here.

IV. “W.M.B.” Like this sketch, William Meath Baker was concise and energetic.

V. “R.P.A.” Richard Penrose Arnold was a pianist and son of the poet Matthew Arnold.

VI. “Ysobel” A crossing-string exercise forms the basis for this sketch, named for Isabel Fitton, one of Elgar’s viola students.

VII. “Troyte” Elgar’s close friend Arthur Troyte Griffith was an architect and enthusiastic but clumsy piano novice.

VIII. “W.N.” The Worcester Philharmonic Society were gracious musical patrons, and their secretary Winifred Norbury had a memorable and characteristic laugh.

IX. “Nimrod” Elgar’s close friend Augustus Jaeger was a music editor and caring personal critic. Nimrod is a reference to the Biblical hunter, the German word for which is jaeger. This movement, often played by itself on solemn occasions, was inspired by a memory of Jaeger’s encouraging counsel, and his singing of a theme by Beethoven.

X. “Dorabella” Dora Penny was something of a muse for the composer, and her stutter is lovingly echoed by woodwinds. Penny’s biography of Elgar reveals abundant details about the subjects of these sketches.

XI. “G.R.S.” Walking along the river Wye with Elgar, organist George Robertson Sinclair watched his bulldog suddenly tumble into the water, paddle over to the bank and bark. Sinclair challenged Elgar to “set that to music!” and he did.

XII. “B.G.N.” The cello solos here honor the fine amateur cellist Basil G. Nevinson.

XIII. “* * *” Lady Mary Lygon, a local music festival sponsor traveling on a sea voyage in 1899, was the subject of this nautically imagined sketch. The reason for the elided initials, like much of this work’s back story, is the subject of great speculation.

XIV. “E.D.U.” Elgar’s wife nicknamed him “Edu” from the German Eduard, and this sketch is thus a self-portrait. Its original form was lengthened by 100 bars at the suggestion of Augustus Jaeger.
Elgar created an unsolved puzzle with his “Enigma” annotation, refusing to explain its “dark saying,” and further implied that yet another unrealized theme arches over the entire set of fourteen variations. Many pages have been written in search of solutions to the riddle, based on anagrams, countermelodies, musical quotations, and literary references, but a full explanation remains elusive.

Though regarded among the greatest of British composers, Elgar’s lively and varied material borrows more from diverse elements of continental Eurpoean music, and can’t be summed up by the dignified Pomp and Circumstance, no matter how deeply it inhabits the culture of two nations. In fact, he was an outspoken critic of what he considered to be a passive acceptance of the blandness of English music.

The paradoxes of his life and career would seem to suggest that Elgar might approve of being credited with creating one of the great mischievous mysteries of music history.

Chopin: Piano Concerto No. 2, Maestoso

Contrary to its title, the Piano Concerto No. 2 (1830) was the first of two piano concertos written by Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849), and contrary to the spelling of his professional name, the great Romantic pianist was Polish, not French.

Raised in an academic family on the grounds of the Warsaw Lyceum (a university), Chopin’s musical gifts were cultivated from an early age. His training was grounded in the traditions of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, which formed the basis for these first attempts at large scale works for piano and orchestra.

However these concertos reveal a shift in the balance between soloist and orchestra. Unlike his predecessors, Chopin used the form to showcase extravagant solo piano technique rather than develop a series of musical ideas through a deliberate give-and-take with the ensemble. It clearly pointed toward the variety of smaller musical forms to which he would later apply most of his creative genius and astonishing skills.

Hundreds of standalone piano works were produced during Chopin’s short life, in the form of études, nocturnes, and interpretations of Polish dances. The fluid and ornate detail of his keyboard textures conceals a sophisticated and disciplined attention to rhythm, articulation and dynamics down to the level of individual notes. With such a delicate style (once described as “embroidery”), he avoided public performances in large concert halls, preferring the intimacy of parlors and salons.

The lighter keyboard actions of nineteenth century pianos made Chopin’s intricate passages easier to execute than on a modern instrument, and the metal frame introduced on the Pleyel piano (Chopin’s favorite) provided more natural sustain than we hear today. This could explain why pedaling is rarely indicated in his scores, yet he prized a legato technique and impressed on his students the importance of “joining two notes together.”

Spending almost all of his adult life in Paris, Chopin became acquainted with the leading artistic figures of the time, notably the piano composers Robert Schumann and Franz Liszt, with whom he shared a mostly friendly rivalry. Though in some ways opposite in style, Chopin and Liszt can be credited with increasing the idiomatic and expressive possibilities of the piano to a degree that had never been heard before, or perhaps since.

Ravel: Pavane pour une Infante Défunte

When a young Joseph-Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) composed Pavane pour une Infante Défunte (1899) for solo piano, he was a student at the Paris Conservatory, from which he would eventually be expelled twice for not winning any composition contests.

The pavane is a slow, processional Renaissance dance, consisting of a series of hesitating steps like those of a modern-day wedding procession. It was just stately enough to have an occasional link with somber ceremonies (such as royal funerals), but that was not Ravel’s creative impetus.

He had written the piece for his Patron, the Princesse de Poignac, and described it as “an evocation of a pavane that a little princess (infanta) might, in former times, have danced at the Spanish Court.” As for the title, he confessed “I simply liked the sound of those words.”

Such explanations, and the comparisons of his style to that of Claude Débussy, later earned Ravel the label of “impressionist,” though he (and Débussy both) rejected that term.

Born just inside the French border with Spain, Ravel adored his Basque mother, and felt a nostalgic love for Spanish culture throughout his life. Rapsodie Espagnole (“Spanish Rhapsody”) (1908) was his first major work composed for orchestra, and L’Heure Espagnole (“Spanish Time”) (1911) was the more successful of his two comic operas. Ravel orchestrated many of his own piano works, and the Pavane was scored for orchestra during this same period.

Its clear melody, surrounded by soft harmonies shifting from archaic modes to modern jazz-like gestures reveal the influence of Chabrier and Fauré (Ravel’s teacher), and that of a contemporary, Erik Satie. Though he was routinely criticized for an overly-cerebral style, Ravel was his own worst critic, and insisted this piece was unoriginal, and “poor in form.”

By the time of its 1911 orchestral debut in England however, the Pavane was praised for its “remote beauty” and is now well received in the repertoire. Only his Boléro (1928), named after the slow Spanish dance, is better known to audiences.

Despite the acknowledged “impersonal” quality of his music, Ravel’s imaginative instrumental colorings and love of dance extend, well into the twentieth century, a sound that to us seems quintessentially French.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Grams Continues to Invigorate Elgin Symphony

After Sunday's concert of classical chestnuts, one thing is clear: Elgin Symphony Music Director Andrew Grams continues to reinvigorate the orchestra's repertoire, and reset the baseline for a concert hall experience.

Ever at ease with a microphone, Grams introduced William Bolcom's satirical Commedia for (Almost) 18th-Century Orchestra (1972) with lengthy and unabashed remarks. However, the effect of serious musicians playing half-serious music was delightful, and the amusing pantomimes from the podium set the tone for a friendly and captivating matinee.

At the opposite end of the program and its pathos was Beethoven's late String Quartet in F Major Op. 135 (1826) arranged for string orchestra by Leonard Bernstein (1979). Along with the other works, this piece enjoyed its Elgin debut this weekend.

The quartet's four parts, scaled tenfold, added volume and mass to Beethoven's thematic contemplations, and the ESO strings provided depth and sheen to their transparent beauty. Often described as music ahead of its time, the work's moments of abstraction, its daring adaptation and infrequent performance made it a treat for connoisseurs. 

Isabella Lippi performs Mozart's Adagio in E Major
for Violin & Orchestra, K.261

ESO concertmaster Isabella Lippi appeared as the guest artist in Mozart's Adagio in E Major for Violin & Orchestra K.261 (1776). Against a tactile and affectionate orchestral brocade, Ms. Lippi laid out strands of melody with precise shape and proportion, projecting clarity of tone and purity of style.

Yet Andrew Grams was the star of this concert. Recently named Illinois Conductor of the Year, Grams is the kind of maestro audiences love to watch as he telegraphs every musical affect through his fluid movements. He "plays" the orchestra as if it were a single magnificent instrument, boldly breaking from conventional technique at will.

Having embraced his role as Music Director, he is now comfortable engaging the audience in direct dialog, both inside and outside the concert hall.  Audiences are growing more comfortable as well, so much that even seasoned listeners spontaneously applauded after the first movement of Mozart's Symphony No. 36 in C Major K.425 (1783), to which Grams responded with a gracious bow.

While it's possible to become too comfortable in any relationship, softening the boundaries between the artists and the audience exalts the experience of the art. The ESO has been transforming its relationship with Elgin in numerous ways this season, and to this community the stage now seems closer than ever.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Elgin Symphony Stars in "A Night at the Oscars"

The Hemmens auditorium was packed like a movie theater on a blockbuster opening weekend, but this audience had come to hear a program of movie music performed by the Elgin Symphony Orchestra on Sunday afternoon before the Academy Awards telecast.

The modern era of sound and picture recording has had a major impact on the arts, and many people's primary exposure to symphonic music today is through movie and television scores, which could explain the huge turnout for this Oscar weekend concert.

An enormous ensemble of players reprised excerpts of memorable soundtracks by John Williams (Star Wars), James Horner (Titanic), and Bernard Herrmann (Psycho). Seven other film scores spanning five decades showcased the incredible variety and detail in the music of award-winning composers from around the world.

ESO violinist Isabella Lippi was the audience's favorite leading lady, performing solos with a dramatic palette of emotions from films The Red Violin and Schindler's List. Expanded brass and percussion sections and a myriad of string techniques were employed in recreating sounds from Ben Hur and Dances With Wolves.

During a seating change between works, charismatic Music Director Andrew Grams highlighted the ESO's ongoing support of Food for Greater Elgin with onstage theatrics of his own: pushing a shopping cart filled with groceries that represents the value of a twenty dollar donation to the cause.

ESO announces its 2015-2016 with a movie during "A Night at the Oscars"

Following intermission, the silver screen itself made an appearance during "A Night at the Oscars" as the 2015-2016 concert season was introduced in a short movie.

In part, the idiomatic use of previews before movie showings has conditioned today's audiences to expect promotional messages to accompany their arts, entertainment, and even worship experiences. It's even possible that some people feel uncomfortable without them.

The ESO has effectively and tastefully integrated their own messaging (and now charitable appeals) into the concert hall experience, and the attendance increases would suggest it just might be working.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Chamber Music is Alive and Well in Elgin

The first three weeks of 2015 have brought nearly ten diverse Elgin performances of classical and new music by soloists, duos and small ensembles in the venerable format known as "chamber music."

Typically staged in a gallery, church or multi-purpose hall, these concerts showcase some of the finest area talents in an up-close-and-personal way. Moreover, the variety of material ranges from masterpieces rarely heard outside the conservatory, to edgy new music from young composers.

The Elgin Symphony Orchestra has led the way with its frequent offerings at Gail Borden Library and nearby schools and health care facilities. The Elgin Youth Symphony has broadened its programs in recent years to include chamber music events for students and faculty.

Smaller groups, like the Heartland Voices, Soirees Lyriques and the Lenten Concert Series at First Congregational Church bring excellent vocal programs to the community. Some of these events are free or donation-based, while others attract a surprising number of paid admissions.

Melissa Snoza, flute and Jennifer Woodrum, clarinet perform with
Fifth House Ensemble at Side Street Studio Arts gallery

Notable examples are the projects from Chamber Music on the Fox, whose lineup features local appearances by professional chamber groups like Spektral Quartet and Fifth House Ensemble from Chicago.

Still the largest crowds are drawn in to hear Elgin musicians like Rachel Elizabeth Maley and Scott Metlicka, whose January recitals at Side Street Studio Arts gallery offered standing room only for latecomers.

Thus emerges alongside Elgin's established symphony concert tradition, a new entrepreneurial paradigm that composer Aaron Gervais calls the "indie classical" movement. Here in this receptive community, the upside is quite good if these lively arts groups can find ways to strengthen each other through partnerships and collective action.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Elgin Symphony Premiers Two Classics with Passion and Drama

A large audience was delighted by a concert of "Passionate Drama" performed by the Elgin Symphony Orchestra Sunday at the Hemmens. An excellent program and effective marketing generated the longest lines we've seen at the box office so far this season.

Bedrich Smetana's "Sarka" (1876) and Antonin Dvorak's "Symphony No. 7" (1885) were the Czech and Czech mate in these two victorious premieres for the ESO. Principal clarinetist Gene Collerd led a stalwart wind section whose precision continues to impress.

Remarks by a poised and affable Maestro Andrew Grams are always welcomed, and his introduction to "Sarka" was especially well placed, since the excellent program notes are hard to read in small print under dim light.

Dvorak's Seventh spoke for itself in symphonic language that all listeners understood. Its Beethoven-like development of atomic musical ideas was recounted convincingly by a very well-rehearsed ensemble, and smiling patrons were amazed the piece had never been heard in Elgin before.

The concert highlight was a stellar performance of Samuel Barber's Violin Concerto (1941) performed by magnetic soloist Philippe Quint. Barber's modern American variety of styles provided Quint an intriguing three-part platform for displaying his technical and interpretive genius. 

Violinist Philippe Quint performs with Andrew Grams and the Elgin Symphony Orchestra
The 1708 Stradivarius gave a mellow voice to the low register, and was satiny smooth as Quint worked the upper positions with amazing tone and accuracy. The orchestra is forgiven for being overly sympathetic in just a few places.

After Quint's performance, the ladies were the first to leap from their seats with applause before settling down to pore over his biography. The body language between the charismatic Quint and Grams was a feast for the eyes and the ears.

Moving freely around the podium, Grams was at his best, injecting passion into every phrase, and drawing out long, dramatic pauses between second and third movements. Yet he's aware the most important part of any piece for the audience is its ending, and these three works were superbly combined to leave the audience, after more than ninety minutes, still wanting even more.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Maley Envisions Bach's Goldberg Variations

Despite the frigid temperatures Friday night, music and art lovers packed themselves into the main gallery of Side Street Studio Arts, which is quickly becoming the primary downtown Elgin venue for chamber music performance.

They came to hear J.S. Bach's 32-part Goldberg Variations (c. 1740) performed by artist-in-residence Rachel Elizabeth Maley, in conjunction with an exhibit of her visual art that was inspired by the music.

Groupings of four small, float-framed paintings echoed the orderly mathematical subdivision of the music. Each element was related in scale, tone and color, but fully developed and individually recognizable after a thoughtful observation.

On an opposite wall, an unframed drawing emphasized unity over individuality, composed of proportionate geometric forms decorated by the counterpoint of a wandering line. The effect was Bach-like: more about the harmony of a structure than the melody of a story.

Pairing abstractions with the human touch of pencil is always beautiful, and the suggestion of architectural sketches of stained glass designs was not lost on those of us from the Prairie.

The concert opened with Wichita Vortex Sutra (1988) by Philip Glass, a piano piece composed to accompany the reading of Allen Ginsberg's 1966 anti-war poem of the same name. Wearing fingerless gloves, Maley's fine rendition of the piece reminded us of the repetitive rhythmic and tonal structures that serve as Glass's characteristic compositional material. 

Some musical detail was acoustically blurred for listeners seated in the back of the room, an unusual placement made necessary by the sheer size of the audience. Some might suggest the Glass could have fared better here with the soft pedal down.

Legend has it that Bach wrote the Variations as an exercise for Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, a young harpsichordist who traveled with an ambassador prone to insomnia. The suite was supposedly used as a repertoire of soothing diversions for sleepless nights.

Reading the score from a digital tablet, Maley worked her way through the nearly eighty minutes of continuous music, subtly differentiating each piece with tempo and affect, and deftly negotiating difficult crossing passages that were originally played on an instrument with two separate keyboards.

The dim light and salon-like atmosphere effectively recreated variations of the scene from 275 years ago, as some listeners experienced closed-eye serenity, while others anxiously counted the passing minutes.

This well-conceived program was a highly successful culmination of creative efforts by Maley, and another milestone for Side Street, whose tireless support of local artists is helping transform downtown culture.

Monday, January 5, 2015

EYSO Faculty Recital Benefits Scholarship Fund

Switching roles from teacher to concert performer, more than a dozen accomplished area musicians shared their gifts with an audience of students and parents in a free concert Sunday at Elgin Community College. 

The seven-part program featured performances by the conductors, teachers, and administrators of the Elgin Youth Symphony Orchestra's numerous ensembles, leaving no doubt as to the passion and depth of talent that sustains a professional musician.

Members of EYSO faculty perform "Septet, op. 65" by Camille Saint-Saëns

The tradition of the great masters was honored in classics by Bach and Saint-Saëns, alongside works by living composers scored for surprising combinations like cello and soprano voice. Four pieces were brilliantly arranged by the faculty themselves, as though to convince students that music is a living art requiring personal involvement far beyond playing back the notes printed on a page.

Events like these also offer a chance for EYSO faculty to demonstrate that music encompasses more than just strings, woodwinds and brass. The marimba, berimbau and electric guitar were played to superb effect, and the electric viola and bowed vibraphone highlighted the possibilities of unconventional playing techniques.

At the hands of an artist, electronic effects are a natural extension for traditional instruments, and jazz, television scores, and world music are all part of an equal-opportunity medium of expression that all people understand.

Karen Archbold, soprano and Timothy Archbold, cello
perform "Songs of the Night Wind" by Gwyneth Walker.

With all due respect to your neighbor lady with the dusty, old piano method books, these inspired faculty are living examples of what a devoted music career looks like, with its endless variety of challenges for the head, hands, and heart.

Students and their parents who are seriously considering higher education in music have no better place to explore and to prepare than in the programs of the EYSO. Voluntary donations raised at this concert will support scholarships for qualified students, but the EYSO welcomes your support in many forms.  For more information, visit