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