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.