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.