Grams, Elgin Symphony excel in Shostakovich

Sun Jan 31, 2016 at 9:43 am

By Tim Sawyier

Andrew Grams conducted the Elgin Symphony Orchestra in music of Copland and Shostakovich Saturday night at the Hemmens Center.
Andrew Grams conducted the Elgin Symphony Orchestra in music of Copland and Shostakovich Saturday night at the Hemmens Cultural Center.

The Elgin Symphony Orchestra (ESO) offered a program of Copland and Shostakovich at the Hemmens Cultural Center under music director Andrew Grams on Saturday night. The centerpiece of the concert was Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 11 “The Year 1905,” which received as high caliber a performance as one can expect to hear in the greater Chicago area outside of Symphony Center.

The evening began with Copland’s iconic ballet Appalachian Spring. Copland’s original 1944 score calls for just thirteen players, and is perhaps as well known as the full orchestra version Copland created a year later for the New York Philharmonic. However, for this performance Grams selected Copland’s problematic 1972 arrangement, which takes the original instrumentation (the composer’s own favorite) but allows for expanded string sections.

The ESO strings achieved a luminous sonority is the work’s opening, with Grams drawing out its subtle counterpoint. Orchestral ensemble was spot on in the incisive fast sections, where Grams elicited percussive, guttural accents from the players. The lyrical woodwind solos received generally refined treatment throughout, particularly in the hushed, prayerful ending.

Problems of balance and contrast are endemic in the 1972 score though, which lacks both the pellucid quality of the chamber version and the timbral variety of its full orchestral counterpart. These issues were ubiquitous in the performance, most notably at louder dynamics where the string sections consistently overpowered their three wind colleagues.

There could be no such qualms about the ESO’s rendition of Shostakovich’s Eleventh Symphony, which was electrifying from start to finish. The work’s opening movement, “The Palace Square,” is meant to evoke Russian commoners gathering at the Winter Palace to demand social and political reforms. The icy static passages were infused with trepidation, with Grams maintaining the tenuous calm with a firm hand.

“The 9th of January,” the work’s second movement, depicts the onset of revolution. Swirling figurations were rendered with menacing exactitude by the ESO strings, and wailing wind lines had an aptly desperate quality. Here Grams expertly calibrated the movement’s large-scale dynamic scheme. Its second climax, arrived at after a frantic fugue laced with the sounds of machine-gun fire, had a devastating impact, making the return of the symphony’s hushed opening music all the more chilling.

The third movement, “In Memoriam,” can be thought of as a sort of funerary dirge for those who died in the previous movement’s violence, and the ESO’s rendition had palpable pathos. The opening viola melody sounded simultaneously resonant and desolate, and the string playing across all sections had an inner intensity in the slow tempo.

The incendiary finale, “The Tocsin” (Alarm), crackled with energy. The ESO’s brass collectively played with the girth and solidity of a cement wall. Again the string sections delivered, most notably in an interlude impelled by the cellos that was a stunning musical portrayal of physical violence. The upper reaches of Joseph Claude’s English horn solo were haunting and conveyed true horror at such violence, and the solitary chime that closes the work was leveling. After the double bar Grams doubled over onto his stand in a moment of questionable theatricality, but one can understand his feeling spent after overseeing such an intense and impeccable performance.

The program will be repeated 2:30 p.m. Sunday at the Hemmens Cultural Center. The Elgin Symphony Orchestra’s next concerts are March 12 and 13, with Grams leading Ives’ Symphony No. 2 and Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto with Alexander Schimpf.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Grams, Elgin Symphony excel in Shostakovich”

  1. Posted Jan 31, 2016 at 8:40 pm by Roland Buck

    The Elgin Symphony deserves a lot of credit for including an important work by one of America’s greatest composers, Aaron Copland, something the Chicago Symphony, under its Italian conductor, adamantly refuses to do.

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