About The Elgin Review

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.

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