Lakeview Orchestra closes season with a French feast

Wed Jun 12, 2019 at 11:56 am

By Wynne Delacoma

Gregory Hughes conducted the Lakeview Orchestra and Chicago Chamber Choir Tuesday night at the Athenaeum Theatre. Photo: Kayleigh Dudevoir

The Lakeview Orchestra’s sixth season, which closed Tuesday night, has brought an ambitious array of major crowd-pleasers to its audiences at the Athenaeum Theatre.  Respighi’s Pines of Rome, Holst’s The Planets, Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, Beethoven’s “Emperor” concerto—the hits just kept on coming.

To close the season, however, Gregory Hughes, the orchestra’s founder, artistic director and general director, opted for something more unexpected. The focus was French composers of the late 19th through mid-20th century: Chabrier, Poulenc and Faure. True, the program ended with a requiem, those excerpts from the Latin Mass that Verdi and Berlioz filled with enough heaven-storming moments to bring any concert season to a rousing close.

But Fauré’s Requiem, composed between 1886 and 1888, is an entirely different beast. Fauré was a declared agnostic, and his Requiem’s aim is solace for the bereaved. Images of dead souls quailing before a wrathful God and the living pleading piteously for mercy have no place in his more beneficent vision.

Gregory Hughes

Throughout the evening, Hughes and his players deftly captured the transparent textures and subtle colors so typical of French music. But in the Requiem, joined by the Chicago Chamber Choir and soloists baritone Phillip Dothard and soprano Alexis Magaro, they discovered something more profound. The massed orchestral chords of the opening bars were somber and commanding. As the Introit and Kyrie unfolded, however, the choir’s quiet, flowing melodies emerged as serene and unhurried. There was an undercurrent of optimism in the accompanying strings, their pacing figures implying steadfast faith that the Lord was indeed merciful.

The lower strings proved searching and unsettled at the start of the Offertory, but Dothard’s honey-colored baritone continued Fauré’s stream of understated, almost conversational prayer to a sympathetic god. His voice turned darker and more stern in the Offertory’s images of a punishing inferno and the brief reference to days of wrath in the Libera Me.

But Fauré virtually banished hellfire and brimstone from his Requiem; the score includes no separate Dies Irae segment. Dothard’s dark turns were fleeting, passing clouds in his richly textured, lyrical solos. Though Magaro’s voice sounded brittle at times in the Pie Jesu, Fauré’s lilting lullaby retained its power.

Prepared by artistic director Christopher Windle, the Chicago Chamber Choir sounded both precise and emotionally eloquent throughout the Requiem. Standing on risers behind the orchestra, they were framed by the Athenaeum’s completely exposed rear brick wall. Hearing their ethereal harmonies unfurl against such an unforgiving backdrop was especially moving, underscoring an atmosphere of unwavering faith in the face of wrenching loss. In the final pages, their powerful unison voices were truly exciting. At times Michael Maganuco’s harp seemed to propel the choir to the heavens while Charlie Sega’s austere organ anchored them to more unforgiving realms.

In striking contrast to the celestial Requiem, the orchestra kicked up its heels in the first half with Chabrier’s familiar Espana and Poulenc’s quirky Sinfonietta.

In the brilliantly colored Espana the call and response between hearty strings and cool winds was crisp and playful. The orchestra’s burly brass bustled happily here and there before adding their bright voices to the stem-winding finale.

Poulenc’s Sinfonietta proved exuberant and full of dancing melodies. The off-kilter rhythms and start-and-stop, staccato phrases brought Stravinsky to mind. But in the last of the four movements, the blend of lightning-fast gig and good-natured hoedown was, without a doubt, Poulenc’s own. The movement’s tempo marking said it all. Tres vite et tres gai, indeed.

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