Tuesday, November 28, 2017

EYSO Chamber Music: Strength in Small Numbers

The CAJÉ quartet performs a movement from Mozart at the Elgin Youth Symphony Orchestra's Chamber Music Institute Concerts on November 19, 2017 in the Spartan Auditorium. 
One sixty minute concert by seven ensembles of the Elgin Youth Symphony’s Chamber Music Institute displays how effective a musician can become by playing regularly within a small group.

Spending time together with a shared objective — preparing a piece of music for performance — exposes each individual’s style of reasoning and communicating, and advancement toward the group’s goal requires everyone’s participation.

It was visible in the faces of the Sul Tasto Quartet, as one player smiled knowingly at the efforts of another in negotiating a particularly tricky passage. For these young musicians, the technical accuracy may be less important than the experience of being valued for one’s individual contribution.

Any casual listener can recognize performance jitters and musical imperfections in student group recitals, but a more sensitive observation reveals an unspoken dialogue that takes place among players. A glance asks, “Are you ready?” and a deep breath says, “Yes.” As the music unfolds, their body language signals that they are using the part of the mind that controls communication, not just movement.

The work may not be equally subdivided in a chamber ensemble, but it is certainly shared. As one violinist started to outpace the Gershwin Quartet during an especially busy few bars, cellist Emily Gallagher’s tapping toe reset the tempo to keep the group in sync.

All musicians rely on their printed parts or scores in order to keep the group effort literally “on the same page.” Following the notes (like words) carefully during a performance is a comfort, if not a necessity, but over time the music will be understood in units of larger scale (like sentences and paragraphs). The Really Fast Quartet demonstrated the effect of music that is more felt than timed, in their original rendition of “found music” borrowed from Mozart.

A small group of mature musicians perform like the cast of a play, exchanging cues, directing the audience’s attention, and shaping episodes with each different combination of players to create a musical narrative. The similarity is not lost on the Earl Clemens Wind Quintet, one of the EYSO’s Honors Chamber Ensembles. Their skillful individual performances were enhanced by clear interactions that drew upon trust, mutual understanding and the unspoken language that develops among friends. — JP

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Bringing the Music from the Inside Out

Since Andrew Grams took over as Music Director in 2013, the Elgin Symphony Orchestra has been systematically updating its programming by reaching outward from all areas of the organization, not the least of which being the stage of the Hemmens Cultural Center.

Some people have always regarded a classical music concert as a test of etiquette governed by special rules known only to highly cultured individuals. Like wine appreciation, it was considered a game for snobs. But in recent years, just as the wine business has expanded through a populist outreach centered around consumer education, a similar approach is being skillfully and intentionally employed by the ESO.

It started when Maestro Grams brought his unrestrained conducting style to the podium, and his personal accessibility to the Elgin social scene. Numerous appearances at local club meetings, in the media, at hospitals and libraries, and at casual mixers like the post-concert "Mingle with the Musicians" offered exposure for his outgoing personality and gift of gab.

Inevitably this style found its way into the concert hall, where Grams developed a warm, witty rapport with audiences on a par with any professional emcee. Seen from the stage, the main auditorium at the Hemmens looks like a university lecture hall, and perhaps this contributed to his increasing tendency to indulge in colorful remarks on composers and their music.

Having relaxed almost all stiffness out of the concert experience, the next logical step was to demystify the music itself. The ESO Listeners Club, pre-concert chats and program notes have always served that purpose, but they appeal to listeners who are already engaged, loyal patrons.

With the help of visual aids, Music Director Andrew Grams explains the historical context of Beethoven's Symphony No. 7.

In order to reach a larger public, the ESO created the "Inside the Music" format to apply Grams' knowledge and charisma to the task of audience education. The result is a hybrid event consisting of a music appreciation class complete with multimedia and live orchestral excerpts, followed by a full performance of a major work from the classical repertoire. The latest in this series featured Beethoven's Symphony No. 7.

"He was not just some mysterious brooding genius," Grams said of Beethoven the man. "He worked for a living; he fell madly in love; he was a human being." The orchestra patiently demonstrated short passages, melodies, rhythms and even single notes to illustrate Grams' analysis of the symphony's building blocks. His message was that the music wasn't so much superhuman in its origin, but simply a product of superb craftsmanship of a kind that anyone with a talent or skill can understand.

The Elgin Symphony Orchestra performs Beethoven's Symphony No. 7.

Beethoven seems to bring out the best in an orchestra, and Grams in his shirt sleeves was joyously animated in conducting the four-part masterpiece after intermission. The audience didn't just clap after the allegro, they actually chortled at the Maestro's jests.

In some future or parallel universe, the symphony players themselves might expand their direct contact with the concert hall audience, but for now it's the sparkle and glow of the conductor that influences how we feel about these performances. Grams seems to love working in this informal atmosphere, and honestly, when the music is this good, it doesn't need any added ritual to enhance its quality or importance.

The next "Inside the Music" event is set for Friday, March 23, 2018 at 8pm, featuring Edward Elgar's Enigma Variations. For tickets and more information, go to www.elginsymphony.org.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Janus Theatre Company Shows what "Art" is Supposed to Do

None other than Plato suggested the idea that "art imitates life." No matter how deep and wide this premise is elaborated, it's still durable and useful creative material. Janus Theatre chose well in presenting Art, a Tony award-winning 1994 play by Yazmina Reza, to open its nineteenth season Friday at the Seigle Gallery at Elgin Artspace Lofts.

This dialog-driven one-act play involves three men whose long friendship reaches a crisis point when one of them buys a very expensive minimalist painting. Their ensuing arguments over its artistic merit expose their own struggle to understand and appreciate each other, as each character eventually reveals his own judgments and interpretations of his friends. As the play progresses, their flawed egos, insecurities, and emotional postures change color and density like layers of paint on a canvas.

Michael Wagman (Yvan), Justin Schaller (Serge) and Sean Hargadon (Marc)
in "Art" by Yazmina Reza at Elgin Artspace Lofts.

A superbly cast ensemble of Sean Hargadon, Justin Schaller and Michael Wagman brought to life three rather different characters, each played with subtly appropriate costume and evocative body language. Their stage chemistry is excellent, and their delivery of every line, from the most profound aphorisms to the coarsest interjections, was consistently well-timed and elocuted.

Only Janus Theatre Company's up close, intimate staging could succeed in the Seigle Gallery, whose broad, flat surfaces scatter the sounds of dialog when actors face upstage. Surrounded by a significant exhibit of visual art, the play includes several audience asides which reinforce the feeling of being entirely present for the action.

Art's script carries a payload of fascinating ideas encapsulated in choice lines, disguised as a prickly and often funny conversation among friends. The controversial painting is really just a foil for the characters' own tendencies to define each other, while simultaneously refusing to accept the others' definitions of them. Raising questions and causing introspection is what art is supposed to do.

See if you agree that all definitions are relative. Art continues Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 6:00 pm through November 19th. Tickets are available at jtcART.eventbrite.com.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

St. Charles Singers: "The Mozart Journey" is the Destination

If the notes are written but no one hears them, is it still music?

The St. Charles Singers seek to eliminate that question by giving voice to the sacred choral works of W.A. Mozart, in their multi-season series of concerts that bring this neglected part of the master composer's catalog to the fore.

St. Mary's Church of Elgin.

"The Mozart Journey XII" passed another milestone Sunday at St. Mary's Church in Elgin, as the 32-voice choir, accompanied by the Metropolis Chamber Orchestra, presented 75 minutes of choral and symphonic music from the period 1771-1779.

This youthful vocal ensemble is different from other community choirs in that it consists of highly-skilled, professionalistic musicians, including impressive soloists in every section. In some voices you hear only the training, but in these voices you can hear depth of meaning that comes from talent and experience. You can hear art.

The joy of directing this caliber of singers is evident in the smile that never leaves the face of founder and Maestro Jeffrey Hunt, characteristically unpretentious in his collarless shirt, and conducting without a baton. He let the music do the talking while never missing a cue, tempo or page turn. He conducts like copper conducts electricity: channeling it without throwing sparks or adding resistance.

In fact the opening piece, a movement borrowed from the "Posthorn" Serenade (K.320), was entirely unconducted. With the winds standing in a row behind seated strings, the performance showcased Mozart's gift of eloquent musical dialogue from the very first nod from the principal flute.

The centerpiece of the concert was the nine-part Litaniae de venerabili altaris Sacramento (K.125), featuring solos by alto Debra Wilder, soprano Jennifer Gingrich, bass Jess Koehn and tenor Bryan Kunstman. Displaying excellent pitch memory and articulation, these gifted singers made it look easy to manage wide intervals and fragile entrances, and bravely negotiated complex melismas, trills and cadenzas.

Though the layout of St. Mary's makes staging a bit difficult, the sound makes it all worthwhile. It sounds like a cathedral, with infinite acoustic forgiveness, and grace enough even for horns. The bass and tenor sections were harder to hear during the tuttis, yet the double bass resounded nicely.

We liked the exquisitely soft, lightly orchestrated sections of Misericordias Domini (K.222) where the lower voices and the portative organ could incandesce. Softer moments of the Litaniae revealed the singers' disciplined control of breaths and consonants, perfected by superb direction and preparation. The highly repetitive, all-Latin text gave them no trouble.

Despite the fact that the works on this program are seldom heard, the genius of Mozart's voice makes them seem familiar, and the craftsmanship of his instrumental Symphony No. 12 in G (K.110) is emblematic of this music which almost plays itself.

In a well-placed finale, the Regina Coeli (K.108) juxtaposed choir and orchestra in four movements that featured soprano soloist Meredith Du Bon. The choir watched and listened with admiration during solo passages as Du Bon dared to inject personality into the sacred text, and their faces expressed concentration and joy simultaneously in powerful and memorable fortes.

Elgin has a great appetite for the arts, and scholarship, and loves historic preservation. "The Mozart Journey" is a perfect addition to the fall concert schedule and a credit to St. Mary's Church and the Gifford Park neighborhood. We wish the St. Charles Singers would perform here more than once a year. Until then, you can hear them at Baker Memorial United Methodist Church in St. Charles for "Candlelight Carols," Dec. 1-3.  Go to stcharlessingers.com for tickets and more information.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Robert Frosty Theatre Co. at Elgin Fringe Festival

Don't be fooled by the makeshift set, exaggerated stage combat and ridiculous premise. "Andrew Jackson: American Maniac" stands as proof that the actors of Robert Frosty Theatre Company actually know what they're doing.

Part history, part fantasy, lots of comedy — Frosty has created its own genre of theatre, based on plots filled with famous personalities, shameless use of pop culture references, and fluid timelines fraught with anachronisms. It simply can't be judged by the standards of legitimate theatre.

Yet these skilled actors can project their lines without shouting, take full control of their performance space, and handle any degree of full-body physical action that the script requires. Did we mention the script?

Robert Frosty Theatre Co. at Elgin Fringe Festival.

"Jackson" chronicles the past, present and future life of America's seventh President, the temperamental Father of the Democratic Party, famous for the Indian Removal Act and his zest for dueling. According to Frosty, he also plays a mean guitar and sports a bionic arm.

You'll spend half the show laughing and the other half holding your breath, as you watch a great cast doing what they love to do, in their own way, on their own terms. That's when artists are at their best.

Elaine Phillips at Elgin Fringe Festival

Elaine Phillips is not the Zingbot you're looking for. Bringing thoughtful humor to her show "No Place Like Home," she uses observations from her extensive travels abroad to touch on themes of privilege, provinciality and "otherness" as experienced by a white American woman.

Elaine Phillips at the Elgin Fringe Festival.

Trained as a teacher, she knows how to stick with a topic for while, using the stage to inform as well as entertain, and you can see the wheels turning in her head as she pauses between riffs. Going from country to country in her set, she has no problem using her own homebody tendencies to set up jokes on wildlife, sunburn, foreign language or cuisine.

Ironically, Sunday's audience seemed to laugh loudest at her personality characterizations and physical humor during a bit on Israel. She's easy to watch, never talks down to you, and no, she's not Jewish.

Minnesota SkyVault Theatre Co. at Elgin Fringe Festival

It strikes you as a vaudeville rendition of a heartland supper: a loving, homemade spread of musical theatre, and lots of it. But the feast that is "Skirmish of Wit," an original show by Minnesota SkyVault Theatre Company, is anything but bland.

Minnesota SkyVault Theatre Co. presents "Skirmish of Wit" at Elgin Fringe Festival.

Based on Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, it's a story about falling in and out of love based on dubious information and advice. You'll make more connections than a northern Illinois railroad as you watch these young artists act, sing, swap instruments and play for nearly an hour.

The style and soul of this piece resonates with a Midwestern audience like fine folk art, whose wisdom and authenticity is far more important than technical sublety. The lack of contrived costume or makeup are essential to this cast's appeal, and on a stage full of raw talent, the two leads, Rebekah Novinger and Aidan Driscoll, showed off some real chops.

Without hearing every lyric through individual wireless headset mics, we can't decide if "Skirmish" is better during the loud choruses or the soft, tender duets, but we wouldn't change a thing. The fact that this show holds its own among seasoned professionals is proof that even greater things are still to come.

Jeremy Schaefer at Elgin Fringe Festival

Giving voice to a viewpoint that's rarely examined, Jeremy Schaefer's "Sportsball" questions the preeminence of sports in America in an effort to understand why fans devote so much attention to it.

Schaefer admits he sees baseball as just a field of daydreams, and football as 22 concussions waiting to happen. With well-chosen examples, he exposes the paradox of a sports culture in which every game is rule-based, but lawlessness and injustice in things that really matter are given no scrutiny at all. His sharp and insightful arguments are laid out with humor and lots of personality.

Jeremy Schaefer performs "Sportsball" at Elgin Fringe Festival.

Stopping just short of maligning all avid sports fans (an enormous group of people he doesn't fully understand), Schaefer discovers a basketball team he can rally with, based not on geography or brand loyalty, but for its social consciousness. In the process, he gets in touch with a part of his own humanity that sports fans have always deeply felt.

As tightly wound as a cello, he is just as musically eloquent in his delivery, going from growls to shouts to whispers with just the right timing and articulation, and his restless energy is often used to visual effect. He's a tough act to follow.

Sports is sacred in America, and Schaefer takes considerable risk by lampooning Cubs fans in an Elgin show, but ultimately he finds acceptance, if not community, in a sports culture that is profoundly diverse in every other way that really matters.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Elgin Theatre Company and "Screwing Around with Shakespeare" at the Elgin Fringe Festival

The extensive talents of Elgin Theatre Company never cease to amaze us with their audacious variety of material in all sorts of genres. Donna Latham's original trio of sketches called "Screwing Around with Shakespeare" is a comedic cocktail of two main ingredients — Shakespeare and "screwing around" — and this mix is heavy on the latter.

Guy Moore as Romeo (left) and Henry Honshul as Ralphie in Elgin Theatre Company's
"Screwing Around with Shakespeare" at Elgin Fringe Festival

A cast of five handles all the roles that make up vignettes borrowed from Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and A Midsummer Night's Dream, but these scenes aren't quite as the Bard wrote them. Not a contemporary resetting either, the scenes are a time warp of characters and dialog from different centuries, in full period costume and wigs, acting alongside a sign language interpreter.

It's campy as hell, and the over-the-top sendups of classic roles are full of youthful exuberance. The slapstick energy is infectious and the script is so full of pop culture references and contemporary urban street slang (CUSS) that it sounds like it was written five minutes ago. The cast cannot help but indulge themselves a bit.

A little knowledge of Shakespeare goes a long way in "Screwing Around," and if you listen carefully you'll find something to giggle about in almost every line.

This show wraps with a finale on Sunday, September 17th at 1:30pm at the Elgin Art Showcase.

Creative Moves Performace at Elgin Fringe Festival

The program description of "Weaving Webs" is accurate, but it can't capture the depth of meaning in this standout piece created by Julie Leir-VanSickle of Creative Moves.

Julia Leir-VanSickle performs "Weaving Webs" at Elgin Fringe Festival.

The sequence of sound, imagery and solo dance lead gently but deliberately into a profound composition of connectedness, first of one body's members, then more. Powerful images of sympathetic vibrations, the self-ness of a home, and the hard work of making and retaining attachments accompany beautiful movement that makes ingenious use of materials.

One thread becomes a small web, then a larger web, then an installed web of interconnected vision and effort that draws in the audience. Our energy creates the web and powers it; it strengthens us and becomes a lifeline and a dwelling place.

"Weave with me," Leir whispers, as nearly every person joins in the group project that physically reconnects the stage to the auditorium, one gesture at a time. It brilliantly teaches, through direct participation, how all art is a community enterprise. If only the Elgin Fringe Festival could last five more days so everyone could experience this piece.

Become captivated Saturday, September 16th at 7:30pm at First United Methodist Church.

William Pack at the Elgin Fringe Festival

Audience buzz for magician William Pack's "Exceptions to Reality" crackled with electricity early in the Elgin Fringe Festival, and he did not disappoint.

William Pack performs at Elgin Fringe Festival.

Combining storytelling, memoir, and high quality magic, Pack skillfully sidesteps the charlatan image of some illusionists with his running commentary on the history and philosophy of the craft. But rather than short-changing the act, the narrative actually deepens the appreciation of the tricks, delivering the message that magic is just as powerful now as it was before technology made difficult things seem easy.

Audiences are often part of intimate fringe performances, and the Saturday afternoon crowd was all in for card tricks, sleight of hand and a little classic carnival geekery. A few noisy voices in the audience may have made Pack end the show early, but it only left us wanting more.

All the best artists are devoted fans and students first, and Pack's deep affection for this craft shows through in his detailed command of powers he knows are really much bigger than himself.

Experience it again Sunday, September 17th at 1:30pm at Imago Studios.

Carleton the Mime with Mighty Joe at Elgin Fringe Festival

The art of pantomime may have faded from American culture, but you wouldn't know that from a visit to the Elgin Fringe Festival, where Carleton the Mime, one of America's finest and most experienced, revived a show he has honed for more than forty years in front of audiences all over the world.

Carleton the Mime performs with the music of
Mighty Joe at the Elgin Fringe Festival.

The Elgin Art Showcase was standing (and sitting) room only, with an audience of all ages. Carleton took the stage to the music of his partner Mighty Joe, and strung together a series of sketches covering a broad range — from honoring the "flea circus" tradition, to breaking the mold with gritty scenes of street crime — all in classic silent white face. We never expected to shed a tear, but the piece on fatherhood convinced us that mime is far more powerful than "trapped in a box" or "walking against the wind."

The audience enthusiastically joined in at times, while others intently watched his process of propping, costuming and directing. The interjections, guitar music and sound effects of Mighty Joe gave this act a distinct Chicago feel, and Carleton brought together the creative energy of a twenty-something with the seamless professionalism of a seasoned pro.

If you ever get the chance again, don't miss a show by this man, born with a face that was made for the craft. Sadly, they do not make artists like this anymore.

Independent Players perform "Interview" at Elgin Fringe Festival

The Independent Players consistently bring great material to a fringe festival, the most off-off- of all stages. This year's feature was "Interview," a one-act play from the edgy 1960's America Hurrah trilogy by Jean-Claude Van Itallie.

What looks like a perfunctory job screening quickly becomes a fragmented montage of superficial banter, as a full cast of eight generic characters talk over each other and repeat empty formalities like a bad case of the hiccups.

The Independent Players present "Interview" at the Elgin Fringe Festival.

The premise doesn't become a plot -- it's just a cover for a brilliant subversive composition that assaults the dehumanizing effects of corporatism, mass media and technology. Each character will reveal a glimpse of authenticity only in a monologue or an aside to the audience, stuck between sequences of group cooperation that are singularly absurd.

The excellent cast handled the onslaught of words and cues superbly, and the action was on par with choreographed modern dance. Director Don Haefliger could not have done any better with this minimally staged piece, in which people become props in a corporate agenda that is increasingly devoid of meaning.

You must show up for an "Interview" in the large basement theater of First United Methodist Church, Saturday, September 16th at 4:30pm or Sunday, September 17th at 3pm.

Sonder Productions' "The Fainting Room" at Elgin Fringe Festival

Is sexuality a source of anxiety, or a relief from it? Do doctors give diseases, or take them away? Who defines "wellness"?  Decide for yourself in "The Fainting Room," the one-woman show performed by Becca Bernard of Sonder Productions.

Switching costumes and characters like an old-fashioned farce, she takes you to a Victorian doctor's office where nervous ladies have their "female troubles" evaluated by a gloved hand, and a runaway bride serenades herself (and her proxy) with songs of love, doubt, depression or shame.

Billed as an "explosive release of physical comedy," the bits come gushing out like a firehose, in a mixture of characterizations, songs and sight gags that hold you clenched between your sheepish social norms and full-on dribbling paroxysms of joy.

Becca Bernard in Sonders Productions' "The Fainting Room"
at Elgin Fringe Festival.

Bernard is fearless and utterly body-positive throughout, but displays great artistic depth in a closing sequence of symbolic dance and a cello instrumental that takes this bawdy performance piece to new heights of pleasure.

Explore the sensations, alone or with a friend, Saturday, September 16th at Noon or 9pm.

Ben Benjamins at Elgin Fringe Festival

He says he's not a psychic or a mind reader — he's a magician with tricks that make you think he's those things. But that's neither here nor there once the magic starts, when he makes numbers appear on price tags, or he sketches hidden objects.

Ben Benjamins presents "Mental. Magic." at
the Elgin Fringe Festival 2017.

In his show entitled "Mental. Magic." Ben Benjamins uses several random audience members to show off his uncanny abilities to pluck words and images from a subject's mind. But unlike other "audience participation" acts, you well may want to be chosen for the stunt, because this magician isn't weird or frightening. He's like the funniest guy you just met at a bar.

Key to Benjamins' success is his quick-witted, comedic, regular-guy delivery that leaves you guessing whether the next line is a joke or an astonishing display of mentalism. Make no mistake, a few of the gags really are just jokes (well-played and funny ones at that), but even the shrewdest observer will be gobsmacked by the message in the bottle. No spoilers!

Try to keep up with him Saturday, Sept. 16th at 3pm or 7:30pm, or Sunday, Sept. 17th at 4:30pm at Imago Studios.

Judah LeBlang at Elgin Fringe Festival

Judah LeBlang performs "One Man's Journey
Through the Middle Ages" at Elgin Fringe Festival 2017.

God said, "It is not good for the man to be alone."

We have a primordial urge to know and be known by another, to be understood and accepted, to belong; and yet we must understand and accept ourselves first. It's a human predicament that Judah LeBlang's therapist probably discussed with him.

Like several other Fringe artists this year, LeBlang employs his gift of storytelling not just to fascinate an audience, but to work out personal issues by connecting with people through detailed remembrances of his formative relationships that were never fully satisfying. In his "One Man's Journey Through the Middle Ages," he ties together a Baptist funeral, a deaf uncle, a Saturday night in Provincetown and more, to illustrate a life experience that's overcast by feelings of inferiority and accustomed to unmet expectations.

Equipped with powers of vivid and sensitive description, LeBlang delivers autographical vignettes that are powerfully relatable, and his story structure, word choice and timing are paired with just enough movement and costume effects to hold your unbroken attention for a full fifty minutes. The script is verbose, but nicely segmented and never repetitive.

You may think you could never relate to an aging, single, gay Jewish man, but this piece will make you feel like marrying one.  Get to know Judah LeBlang Saturday, Sept. 16th at 6pm or Sunday, Sept. 17th at Noon.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Tricia Park at Elgin Fringe Festival 2017

"Baroque composers wrote music as a social, civic or religious duty, not for personal expression," explains violinist Tricia Park in her solo show "variations on an (original) theme: a suite in eight movements" at the Elgin Fringe Festival. Her performance would later quote from Bach's "Chaconne in d minor," a landmark piece in a musical form that endured an international identity crisis for centuries.

These elements are key to the symbolic reasoning that connects chapters of Park's autobiographical narrative: snapshots of formative experiences that exposed mind, body and soul to scrutiny by teachers, doctors, impresarios, even her parents through the lens of Korea's culture of high expectations.

Gifted more as a writer than an actor, her scholarly voice wavers only when recalling the most achingly real details of a childhood shaped by constant discipline, and jarring transitions from solitude to total exposure.

But she has used this material of her life to write something original that heals from within, and her musical performance reflects technical excellence without a gloss of perfectionism in portraying who she really is, not just what she was trained to do. The poetic justice is consummated by her violin, which looks blonde, but speaks with a voice exquisitely darkened by stress.

Meet Tricia Park at Imago Studios at Noon or 10:30pm, Saturday, September 16th.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Elgin Master Chorale's "A German Requiem" is Far More Joy than Sadness

All afternoon Sunday, the ECC Arts Center was humming with activity. The Elgin Youth Symphony Orchestra (EYSO) held an open house in conjunction with recitals by its Chamber Music Institute ensembles. The ECC Musical Theatre was holding dance auditions for their summer production of American Idiot. And the Elgin Master Chorale (EMC), the Elgin Symphony Orchestra (ESO) and the EMC Children's Chorus combined for a concert in Blizzard Theatre. 

It was a striking example of the depth of local participation in the Arts, as musicians of all ages toted in instruments, formally-dressed singers hurried backstage and patrons lined up for tickets and lingered by an exhibit of the history of Elgin's premier choir.

The main event was the reprise of Johannes Brahms' Ein deutsches Requiem ("A German Requiem"), marking seventy years since the Elgin Master Chorale was formed as the Elgin Choral Union, consisting of singers from local church choirs. The Choral Union's first performance in 1947 was Brahms' Requiem.

Welcoming remarks by EMC member Amy Cho struck the right note of informality in acknowledging Stu Ainsworth, perennial friend of the Arts and the event's key sponsor, and Ann Chipman, daughter of the EMC's founder, Dean Chipman. She also introduced the first act, the EMC Children's Chorus.

The Elgin Master Chorale Children's Chorus, conducted by Rebecca Narofsky.
They sounded like the Von Trapp singers in their renditions of five German songs (by Brahms) to open the program. Their 35-minute set included thirteen songs in all, displaying a wide range of technical skill in covering spirituals, theatrical scores and world music. Conductor Rebecca Narofsky has expanded their repertoire impressively in a short time and their discipline shows. Sharing the stage with the EMC and the ESO is a valuable experience for these young singers, and their co-appearances should help expand the audience.

More than 150 artists assembled after intermission for the German Requiem: nearly 100 singers arranged on risers in back of a 69-piece orchestra. So large was the combined ensemble that much of the audience was situated closer to the conductor than the choir. 

Brahms' seven movements were assembled over a period of several years, as detailed in the excellent program notes, and their effects are different. The music excelled in the sixth movement with its programmatic drama, and especially the fifth, which featured the choir's exquisite soft background harmonies.

The Elgin Master Chorale performs Brahms' A German Requiem with the Elgin Symphony Orchestra,
conducted by EMC Music Director Andrew Lewis.
Careful preparation was apparent in the Chorale's mastery of dynamics and articulation, and the German lyrics were rarely hard to follow by carefully reading in the printed program. The accompaniment included many ESO guest musicians, whose work generally defied criticism. Bass-baritone David Govertsen and soprano Henriët Fourie Thompson gave praiseworthy solos that emphasized tone and technique in the chromatic melodies of Brahms' Romantic style. 

Bass-baritone David Govertsen and
Soprano Henriët Fourie Thompson.
EMC Music Director Andrew Lewis maintained confident control of his massive array of forces for the nearly 75 minutes of continuous music. The volume of sound was enormous at forte and above, and the spatially expansive vocals lent an atmospheric quality to the divine lyrics and metaphysical subject matter. Funerals are filled with complex emotions and contemplations of eternity, and there was far more joy than sadness in this performance.

In the Arts, the difference between amateur and professional can be hard to define. It's not necessarily a matter of excellence or even whether a fee is involved. The willingness of Elgin artists to work together under all sorts of arrangements, regardless of their status, means audiences can experience the finest theatre, music, visual and literary arts in a local venue for relatively little cost. Always among the best examples is this pairing of the Elgin Master Chorale and the Elgin Symphony Orchestra, whose concerts are not just amazing in their audacity of scale but also highly successful as art.

Hear the EMC and ESO join forces again May 6-7 at the Hemmens Cultural Center in Elgin, where they present Vaughn Williams' Serenade to Music as part of the "Voices of Spring" festival. For more information, go to www.elginsymphony.org or www.elginmasterchorale.org.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Elgin Youth Symphony Orchestra: Keeping Art Music Relevant

One could argue that the regenerative cutting edge of music has always been pushed by people under age thirty. As evidence, one might offer up the Elgin Youth Symphony Orchestra's March 12th concert, "By the Waters of Babylon: Music of Exile, Longing, and Home."

Integrating projected imagery, a folk revival era soundtrack, and a timely thematic agenda, this concert was more than just a student recital: it was a powerful statement about music as part of a holistic human experience of seeing, listening, feeling, thinking and creating.

A massive orchestra filled the stage and side loges of ECC's Blizzard Theatre to perform Verdi's "Va, pensiero" from Nabucco (1841), arranged for the EYSO by Artistic Director Randal Swiggum. A four-piece percussion ensemble performed groundbreaking "Double Music" (1941), written by a teenage John Cage and a very young Lou Harrison, who dared us to question the limits of musical language.

The elite Maud Powell String Quartet played the spiritual "Deep River," arranged by Robert Hanson, former Music Director of the Elgin Symphony Orchestra and Founding Conductor of EYSO. This was followed by a premiere of "On the Gravity and Crisis" (2017) by twenty-something composer Ethan Parcell, whose unconventional process shifted substantial creative responsibility to the Earl Clemens Wind Quintet.

All of this represents relevant contributions to our ongoing musical discourse by young people, local people, and living artists who have not yet finished creating.  As for the players, each one's individual musicianship often surpassed the cohesion of their ensemble, but at this level it's hard not to judge by professional standards.

Associate Conductor Matthew Sheppard conducts the Elgin Youth Symphony Orchestra.

To his credit, the same might be said of Associate Conductor Matthew Sheppard. Throughout the kaleidoscopic mashup of Verdi's "Overture to Nabucco," his baton transmitted dramatic direction with affect and energy like a seasoned maestro.

The taut, simmering Third Symphony (1944) by Bohuslav Martinů was a well-rehearsed and impressive finale. It was the debut performance of Martinů for any Elgin audience and quite possibly a first for any youth orchestra anywhere.

The venue, the music, the scholarship, the beautiful program booklet (by itself, worth the price of admission) — everything at this concert was first rate, except the size of the audience. This conservatory-quality organization deserves to be heard by more than just loyal friends and families; Elgin's larger community of arts patrons need to discover what they've been missing.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Independent Players Spell Out Blessing's Eleemosynary

Five years was worth the wait to finally see the Independent Players' excellent production of Eleemosynary (1985) by Lee Blessing. The unlikely title is a deep dictionary word so recondite it gets in the way of its own meaning and usage. It's a perfect metaphor for the flaws of three generations of women whose preoccupation with arcane knowledge has taken the place of understanding themselves and maintaining meaningful relationships.

A near-capacity audience was seated on two sides of a minimally set space at the Elgin Art Showcase Saturday, as the action shifted fluidly through interconnected moments of narration and dialog anchored to impressions of place and time. The talented cast was well directed to maintain such continuity through the excellent non-linear script.

The overall skill and professionalism of this production was epitomized by Marge Uhlarik-Boller as grandmother "Dorothea," a free spirit whose frustrating formative years evolved into a fascination with theoretical possibilities. Her colorful delivery was perfectly timed to inject comedy that often carried, like the play's abundance of obscure words, layers of embedded meaning.

Dorothea's daughter "Artemis" — from the Greek goddess of wilderness and the hunt — was played with tangible complexity by Lisa Schmela. Her stage movements and body language brilliantly decoded the references in Artie's words: she is always seeking relief from her multiple "attachment disorders" by immersing herself in biochemical research and moving from place to place.

Sarah Bartley played Artie's daughter "Echo," a precocious chatterbox (raised by Dorothea) whose source of joy, object of love, and purpose for living is to know the spelling and definition of every word in English. The frequent spelling recitations and sheer number of words make this role challenging, but far from one-dimensional. 

Echo covers the greatest range of all, from infancy through childhood, and on to maturity in a powerful role-reversal in the closing scene. Like her loquacious, mythical namesake, words were at times an emotionally obstructive handicap, and Echo's voice indeed reverberates with the quirky tendencies of her two mothers. But Dorothea (meaning "God's gift") is the prophet of the family as she repeats, "It's a terrible desire to want to know everything."

Clockwise from upper left: Lisa Schmela, Sarah Bartley, and Marge Uhlarik-Boller.

This ensemble did an amazing job of creating surprisingly relatable characters in vignettes that often consisted of six-syllable words, one-sided conversations and imaginary props. After 39 years, the Independent Players have not lost the knack for assembling together wonderful actors, directors and scripts. 

Eleemosynary, directed by Larry Boller, continues for one more weekend, March 17-18 at 8 p.m. at the Elgin Art Showcase.  Tickets are available at independentplayers.org or at the door.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

"Peace and Redemption" Draws an Overflow Audience to Elgin Art Showcase

They needed extra chairs to accommodate all the people who came to hear "A Concert for Peace and Redemption," a program of classical vocal performance with themes that celebrate love, faith and unity. The voices of Soirée Lyrique were joined by the Elgin Master Chorale Children's Chorus and grand piano accompaniment in the spacious eighth floor venue in downtown Elgin.

Tenor Cornelius Johnson displayed his theatrical acumen in delivering Handel's "Comfort Ye My People" with clear meaning as well as art, and left us wanting to hear more solos of such eloquence. At first, the dark, polished tone of mezzo-soprano Jennifer Kosharsky reminds you of exquisite contralto voices from another continent and century, but her strength and control in the upper register of Verdi's "Oh dischiuso è il firmamento" proves she can cover either part with her impressive tessitura.

No one can fill a room with sound and feeling like soprano Solange Sior, whose solos like Bizet's "Je dis que rien ne m'épouvante" are as powerfully emotive as they are gracefully musical. Baritone Aaron Wardell's concert technique was wonderfully on point in cerebral performances like "Pro peccatis" from Rossini's Stabat Mater, whose tense Latin vowels remained vibrant even at low pitch and volume. As always, the piano accompaniment of Chiayi Lee was a learned and vivid interpretation of these great works' orchestral settings — never overpowering, nor too literal.

The singers of Soirée Lyrique and the Elgin Master Chorale Children's Chorus
take a bow after "A Concert of Peace and Redemption" at the Elgin Art Showcase.

Many in the audience had come to see the EMC Children's Chorus, a 19-voice ensemble directed by Becky Narofsky. Their beautiful unisons were enlivened by part-singing, counterpoint and several fine solos. These young singers' excellent coaching was reflected in their focus and very professional bearing.

The Elgin Art Showcase is a fine acoustic space for soft timbres and small ensembles, which favored the soloists and children's choir, but its rectilinear surfaces are not selective enough for greater volumes of sound. Soirée Lyrique's powerful solo quartet from Verdi's Requiem was simply too big for the room with the combined forces of Sior, Kosharsky, Johnson, Wardell and Lee.

But the message of these classics clear. It's the finest qualities of human nature that inspire the most beautiful music, and that is ultimately what audiences want to experience: love, unity and a glimpse of the Divine.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Grams and Elgin Symphony Making Their Point

Some in the audience may not have expected a noisy, expository dialogue with the conductor in the middle of the concert Saturday, but that is now common during performances by the Elgin Symphony Orchestra, even on the most sophisticated of programs.

When viewed from the stage, the utilitarian design of the main auditorium at the Hemmens Cultural Center looks like a public university lecture hall, and the person with the microphone will be tempted to start a discussion. It could very well explain the chemistry between the naturally loquacious Music Director Andrew Grams and an audience that loves to listen. 

Roughly a thousand people braved the cold temperatures and applauded freely between movements of three classics from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

A chamber ensemble sat in a half-circle to begin the concert with Octet (1923) by Igor Stravinsky, a landmark piece that signaled a return to composing music that stood as "art for art's sake." The outstanding eight-piece wind ensemble (with no alto voices) gave it a suitably cerebral reading, unfazed by its metrical changeups, tumbling scales and dissonances.

Afterwards, Grams offered perspective on the piece and invited reaction from the audience. Serving as a five-minute music appreciation class while the stage was reset, the brief exchange revealed how large a part of the audience was actually paying close attention to the music and the excellent program notes.

Grams' remarks introduced Violin Concerto No. 1 (1923) by Sergei Prokofiev, which had premiered at the same Paris concert as Octet. Soloist Angelo Xiang Yu displayed amazing scope of technique on an instrument with tone so sweet it could imitate the breath through a woodwind.

Violin soloist Angelo Xiang Yu performs Prokofiev's Violin Concert No. 1 with
the Elgin Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Andrew Grams.

The full orchestra was in excellent form after a busy holiday concert season and played a precise score to Yu's vivid protagonism. He delivered confident glances to the audience between impossibly high lyrical passages, scorching fiddle chords, flying spiccato and echoes of a plucked guzheng.

The accompaniment surged with a colorful narrative in the finale as Yu carried off trills and runs like single note melodies into a standing ovation. The audience was rewarded with an unaccompanied solo as an encore.

Many had come to hear Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, "Eroica" (1805), widely regarded as a turning point in the historic evolution of symphonic style. And they were not disappointed, some saying it was the best rendition they'd ever heard.

From the subliminal string tremolos to crashing chords, Maestro Grams kept the ESO's forces in balance for 47 minutes with eloquent physicality, mouthing the melodies and never missing a cue.

At his direction, the wind choir shone brilliantly against Beethoven's restless eighths, and solos were clear and precise. The tuttis were always tightly synchronized, and the dynamic contrasts achieved by the 65-voice ensemble were breathtaking. With these artists speaking for him, Beethoven has lost none of his persuasive power after more than two centuries.

More and more, the ESO is taking a service-oriented approach, making the music accessible through affordable ticket prices, programming variety, community outreach, and not least of all, education. You can find no better place to enrich your quality of life than in this audience.