Marking its 60th anniversary season, the Elgin Symphony takes a trip to Hollywood

Sun May 02, 2010 at 2:04 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Robert Hanson conducted the Elgin Symphony Orchestra Saturday night in a program of music by Hollywood composers.

While many regional orchestras have fallen victim to tough economic times, the Elgin Symphony Orchestra continues to thrive, serving its loyal far northwest suburban audience with discerning programming and an impressive array of guest artists.

Robert Hanson has been with the Elgin Symphony for a remarkable 35 years, the last 25 as music director. Even the best maestro-orchestra marriages seem to sour after a decade, but it appears from the many smiles from the ESO’s 71 musicians Saturday night at the Hemmens Cultural Center that the relationship remains artistically healthy and productive.

The Elgin Symphony is currently marking its 60th season, and Saturday’s program “Exiles in Hollywood,” centered on concert works by Hollywood composers, showed the orchestra in admirable fettle.

The evening led off with a rarity, Miklós Rózsa’s Overture to a Symphony Concert. Written in 1956 (and revised in 1963), it’s not one of the Hungarian composer’s more memorable works, opening with a brass fanfare that could have come from one of his lesser scores for a Biblical epic. Hanson led a solid, well played reading, some brass mishaps apart, that would have benefited from a tighter grip and more forward impetus.

More intriguing was the Sinfonietta for string orchestra and timpani by Franz Waxman. Written the same year as Rózsa’s Overture, this dark and somber work was apparently a Cold War hit with the Soviets when Waxman took it on tour for the State Department, but has dropped out of view since.

That’s unfortunate for the Sinfonietta is one of Waxman’s finest concert works. Cast in three movements with a prominent, ominous timpani part, the work is darkly introspective with an astringent opening Allegro and a more dynamic closing Scherzo, which fails to dispel the gloom. Most striking is the central Lento, a bleak threnody framed by inward-looking cello solos and punctuated with dirge-like emphasis by the timpani.

The Elgin strings appear the most consistent section of the orchestra these days, some errant viola intonation apart. Hanson directed a concentrated and effective performance getting nicely layered dynamic marking. Led by its gifted concertmaster, Isabella Lippi, the strings provided fine advocacy for this neglected music with atmospheric contributions by cellist Matthew Agnew and timpanist Robert Everson.

Jennifer Frautschi

Jennifer Frautschi was the main solo protagonist in Korngold’s lush Violin Concerto. Korngold mined his film scores for thematic material for this short yet tuneful concerto, most notably The Prince and the Pauper, yet the showpiece remains irresistible for blazing bravura as well as its rich melodies.

Frautschi’s performance was a classic mixed affair. After an initial stumble in the opening section, the young Californian showed she has estimable technical chops, handling the outer movements’ myriad landmines cleanly if rather cautiously.

Still, this was decidedly an interpretive work in progress with Frautschi, playing from a score, dawdling too much in the Romanze—with a jarring intonation lapse at one point—when a more straightforward approach would serve the music better.

The blazing finale came off best, yet for the most part this was an unfocused and meandering performance, feeling more like a public rehearsal with Hanson’s accompaniment also wanting in tautness and dynamic tension.

The notes made a valiant if unconvincing case for Richard Strauss’s inclusion on the program due to his richly Romantic music having an impact on film music, even though he was never exiled to Hollywood.

No matter, for Hanson seemed most at home in the suite from Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier. Though Strauss likely had little to do with its creation, the suite is an effective cut-and-paste job, preserving most of the opera’s indelible themes, if shorting the actual vocal music.

The Elgin Symphony may not possess Viennese tonal sumptuousness, but Hanson clearly has a feel for this music, and he and the players delivered a superb performance, with just the right idiomatic lilt to the famous waltz, and ample swagger throughout, the conductor underlining Strauss’s audacious harmonic twists with vigor and panache.

The program will be repeated 3:30 p.m. Sunday at the Hemmens Cultural Center.; 847-888-4000.

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