Thursday, January 14, 2016

"The Poetry of Music" at Elgin Art Showcase

After a weekend of amazing live chamber music performances at the Hemmens Cultural Center and Elgin Community College, two other groups joined forces at the Elgin Art Showcase to perform "The Poetry of Music" presented by Chamber Music on the Fox.

The 20-voice Chamber Singers of Elgin Master Chorale (EMC) were accompanied by the Elgin Chamber Players string quartet in Beethoven's "Elegischer Gesang" (1814) to open the death poetry-themed program. The choir made the room sound like a much bigger hall, especially faithful to the upper registers and more than honest with sibilant German consonants. Displaying tremendous dynamic range, the choir was capable of well-balanced fortes that could almost wake the dead.

The singers' gaze rarely left EMC Music Director Andrew Lewis, whose lucid conducting revealed the depth of their skill and preparation. No less a communicator with words, Lewis the educator shared insights on the evening's vocal works in impromptu remarks, for which the audience was overhead to whisper their gratitude during intermission.

The highlight of the choral performance was "Dark Night of the Soul," (2010) by living Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo, an expansive work that opens with a minimalist piano accompaniment played by Jon Warfel, known locally as the Choirmaster of Elgin's First Congregational Church.

Long, sustained vowels and modern harmonies evoked the mood of long Scandinavian nights, combined with the mysticism of the text by St. John of the Cross (1542-1592). Moments of powerful musical rapture fueled by lyrics like "love's urgent longings" were almost too big for the room, as complex chords gushed out overtones like a North Sea gale. "Dark Night" is a beautiful piece whose only critic was the hard surfaces of the Showcase.

Franz Schubert's String Quartet No. 14 in D Minor ("Death and the Maiden") offered a chance to witness the talents of area musicians Tarn Travers, Eleanor Bartsch (violins), Aurelien Pederzoli (viola) and Sara Sitzer (cello), who is also co-founder of Chamber Music on the Fox.

Despite its nickname, the piece is neither frail nor morose. A better understanding of its subject comes from the medieval "dance of death," understood for centuries as a pushing and pulling between mortals and the Grim Reaper.

The four players traveled a wide range of emotions and musical postures throughout the work's four movements, matching each other's phrasing, dynamic changes and rubatos as if they have played together for a long time. Schubert's startling shifts in key, rhythm and register never put these pros off their game.

The room made it difficult to play soft enough at times, but they are few and far between in this nearly 50-minute masterpiece of the quartet repertoire. Displaying the stamina to match their talents, the players rallied through a dramatic and tumultuous finale with aplomb.

Equally astonishing is the mere fact that performances of this quality are now appearing regularly in venues throughout Elgin, creating critical mass for the arts here, in the middle of what was once viewed as a lifeless suburban cultural desert.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Hidden Lessons: The Fifth Annual EYSO Faculty Recital

In its fifth annual recital Sunday, the faculty and staff of Elgin Youth Symphony Orchestra performed a wide variety of short, interesting pieces for an audience of mostly students and parents, but their finest work was not specifically noted in the program.

These inspired artists each taught a different lesson—often hidden, but always powerful—with their choice of material and careful performances.

Daryl Silberman performs
 three movements from
Canonic Sonata No. 1
in G Major by Telemann.
In her "digital duet" of three movements by Georg Telemann, violinist Daryl Silberman vividly demonstrated how listening is just as important to musicianship as is playing. Her delay-enhanced renditions, like performing in front of a mirror, makes the point that at times, we may learn the most when we listen to ourselves.

A minimalist composition by Philip Glass tied in neatly with EYSO's spring theme (exploring musical concepts of time), but another truth could be found in its world premiere arrangment for piano and four hands by Rachel Elizabeth Maley: a piece of music lives many lives. With every new performance or arrangement, we create a new life for it, using one of the few human powers that approach the divine.

Like the other selections in the recital, program notes for the marimba solo by Joe Beribak provided concise history and listening points, but his expert mallet work illustrated something different that every artist or athlete eventually must learn. Performance involves your whole body—its systems, size, position and proportion—and how it interacts with the space around it.

Joseph Beribak performs
Capricho Árabe by Tárrega.
The EYSO Faculty Recital offers unexpected instrumentation, like the combination of trumpet, violin and piano. Beyond the interesting pairing of brass with strings, the trio of Jason Flaks, Andrew Masters and Rachel Maley suggests that all voices, even muted ones, are capable of great beauty, and that everything that's beautiful is, first and foremost, sincere.

The Piano Quartet by Gustav Mahler is noteworthy because it's the only surviving piece of chamber music from the great symphonist's earliest years. Serving not just as a vehicle for the expressive playing by EYSO faculty, it proves that great work by a student is meaningful, and not everything from our own youth need be discarded.

Anthony Krempa (violin), Rachel E. Maley (piano),
Theresa Goh (viola) and Timothy Archbold (cello)
perform Piano Quartet in A Minor by Gustav Mahler.
With his well-placed "teachable moments," EYSO Artistic Director Randal Swiggum confirms what we have repeated for decades, that in Elgin, you can get as great an education as you want ... you simply have to want one.

Perhaps above all, this recital showed that technical perfection, despite its pedagogical importance, is not the goal of music education. Artistic expression is part of our humanity, and whether we choose the notes, play the notes, or listen to the notes, we can communicate across centuries in ways that transcend any particular language or doctrine.

The EYSO experience is not just for students who are preparing for advanced musical study; it is for any student preparing for a higher quality of life. For more information, visit

Timothy Archbold (cello), Randal Swiggum (piano) and Karen Archbold
(soprano) perform Geistliches Wiegenlied by Johannes Brahms.