Lakeview Orchestra offers Strauss, Beethoven and a world premiere

Wed May 01, 2019 at 11:20 am

By John Y. Lawrence

Andrew Staupe performed Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 with the Lakeview Orchestra Tuesday night at the Athenaeum Theatre.

The Lakeview Orchestra seemingly knows no fear. They grappled with Pines of Rome and The Rite of Spring earlier in the season. And on Tuesday night at the Athenaeum Theatre, the volunteer orchestra and their conductor Gregory Hughes tackled Richard Strauss’s tortuous Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks. This was followed by Tomorrow’s Promise by Jia Jie Chen (the winner of Lakeview Orchestra’s 2019 Composition Competition) and Beethoven’s “Emperor” concerto with soloist Andrew Staupe.

Strauss’s tone poem about the misadventures of the title rogue is a challenge for even seasoned symphony orchestras. The rhythms are tricky, there are numerous difficult wind solos, and the textures are positively bursting with countermelodies that need to be coordinated. One can’t just play the notes. Each episode in Till’s story is a vivid piece of musical storytelling, and this vividness needs to come through.

At first, it looked like it wouldn’t. Hughes took some sections at quite a slow tempo, in part (one suspects) to aid in execution. This worked quite well for the atmospheric “once upon a time” opening. But Till’s horn theme was too safe, too lacking in humor.

Luckily, the performance warmed up with each successive episode. Till’s imitation of the clergy was suitably pious. His love music swooned like it should. His whistling theme was filled with mockery.

Yes, there were mistimed entrances and flubbed notes aplenty. But the performance was best when the orchestra threw caution to the wind, and embraced the hijinks. In fact, the raucous climax two thirds of the way through the piece was much the best part.

Jia Jie Chen, the 24-year-old composer of Tomorrow’s Promise, describes himself as “a self-taught beginner of the composition field.” On the basis of this piece, he has undeniable skill but has not yet found a distinctive individual voice.

Tomorrow’s Promise has the feeling of a patriotic march, despite being written in the not-very-march-like meter of 7/8. A drumroll-like ostinato is played on suspended cymbal throughout the almost ten-minute duration, with a dialogue between brass fanfares and Coplandesque string figures layered on top. The result suggests echoes of John Williams’ music for the Olympic Games or W.G. Snuffy Walden’s soundtrack to The West Wing. This is a piece that proceeds at one level, rather than building to grand climaxes, and the orchestra consequently played it with steady focus under Hughes’ direction.

The “Emperor” nickname of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 often tempts soloists to play it with regal bearing—nobly, but aloofly. 

This was clearly not what either Staupe or Hughes had in mind. Both tore into the piece with great vehemence. Staupe’s octaves hurtled from the keyboard. Any time the trumpets had any music of consequence, Hughes had them blast.

Staupe’s interpretation of the first movement was far from one-note. Beethoven overstuffed this movement with themes, and Staupe varied his touch and dynamics so that each theme was distinct from its siblings.

The second movement was the only disappointment of the performance. Staupe pealed Beethoven’s idyllic melodies a note at a time, instead of building a legato line. One heard Staupe’s individual fingers, and not the piano’s voice.

Everyone was back in their element for the finale, which was rhythmically alert and bustling with energy.

Throughout the concert, Hughes established himself as a bold interpreter. When directing a non-professional ensemble, it is easy for a conductor to become a traffic-director, merely making sure everyone gets to where they need to go. 

But in the Strauss and especially in the Beethoven, Hughes consistently found opportunities to make gestures come alive with physicality or to insert unexpected dynamic changes.

The Lakeview Orchestra will conclude their season June 11, collaborating with the Chicago Chamber Choir in a French program centering on Fauré’s Requiem. The concert is 7:30 p.m. at the Athenaeum Theatre.

Posted in Performances

Leave a Comment