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.