Elgin Symphony plants its downtown flag at Harris Theater

Tue Nov 05, 2019 at 2:38 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Andrew Grams conducted the Elgin Symphony Orchestra Monday night at the Harris Theater.

In recent years, suburban orchestras have tried to broaden their audience and outreach by establishing a foothold in downtown Chicago with varying degrees of success. The southwest-suburban Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra presented a couple concerts at the Harris Theater a few seasons back. And, more recently, the Chicago Philharmonic has given concerts at the Harris as well as its Evanston base.

The Elgin Symphony Orchestra is the latest regional ensemble to stake a claim in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s backyard—something music director Andrew Grams joked about in his remarks at Monday night’s concert at the Harris Theater.

The event was the second of four programs that the Elgin Symphony will present at the Harris this season. And while the playing and performances were largely admirable, it’s clear that establishing an audience in Chicago for an outside ensemble remains an uphill struggle.

The 1,525-seat venue was starkly vacant Monday night, almost unprecedented for an orchestral event at the Harris.  An ESO spokeswoman said 175 tickets had been sold but turnout looked closer to 125 tops—and that’s counting a dozen or more ushers filling out the front section.

Still, every journey begins with a first step. A city like Chicago can surely support concerts by symphonic ensembles besides the CSO, provided they have something different and unique to offer. And the Elgin Symphony attempted that in this program by presenting an offbeat contemporary concerto.

Most of Monday night’s program—performed twice in Elgin last weekend— centered on French showpieces, colorful repertoire that offered an opportunity for the ESO musicians to show their stuff.

Emmanuel Chabrier’s España opened the evening and provided a suitable test drive. Grams—now in his seventh ESO season— led a lively and spirited rendering with mostly polished brass playing and a suitably rousing coda.

The ESO is a worthy ensemble, representative of regional orchestras in that it boasts fine strings—and an excellent concertmaster in Isabella Lippi—and some top principals amid more mixed woodwinds and brass.

Unusually for post-classical-era repertoire, Grams splits the violins left and right; that may aid clarity in antiphonal passages but seemed to sacrifice something at times in the strings’ corporate gleam and sonority.

In Ravel’s Ma Mère l’Oye (Mother Goose), Grams—directing with clear, elegant, occasionally baffling gestures—led his musicians in a sensitive, nicely characterized performance. In this work, one wanted more overall tonal refinement and Grams’ rather brisk, firmly underlined style missed something of the score’s otherworldly fantasy and delicacy. The “Enchanted Garden” finale went best, building to a shimmering, resplendent coda.

The evening’s centerpiece was a real curio—Maninyas: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra by Ross Edwards, performed by soloist Adele Anthony.

Violinist Adele Anthony performed Ross Edwards’ Maninyas Monday night.

Maninyas (1988) takes its title from a series of works the 75-year-old Australian composer wrote in the 1980s after a creative crisis. (The word “Maninyas” is meaningless and was made up by the composer because it connoted some of the effect he was trying to create in his music.)

The opening movement (“First Maninyas”) begins with an introduction of quiet mysterious music for the soloist before segueing into more uptempo bustle for violin and orchestra with irregular, constantly shifting meters before ending quietly.

If the inspiration feels pretty slender in the opening movement, the central intermezzo offers more striking music. The slow movement begins with an extended violin cadenza, played with rapt, glowing expression by Anthony, leading to a quite beautiful hymn-like theme for violas and cellos. Here Grams elicited impressively hushed string playing, as Anthony’s solo line soared above. The final movement (“Second Maninyas”) is a nonstop perpetuo moto, which builds up considerable steam before coming to a stop; the concerto ends with a reprise of the peaceful music of the opening movement.

Edwards’ concerto may not be a neglected masterpiece, but it has some undeniably inspired moments. Give Grams and the Elgin Symphony credit for programming an offbeat work and not relying on the usual fiddle-warhorse suspects.

Adele Anthony doesn’t enjoy the high-profile career of her husband Gil Shaham, but she is a superb player and proved a fine exponent for Edwards’ concerto. Perhaps tempos felt rather cautious in the finale, but Anthony handled the technical demands securely and brought magical playing to the hushed final bars.

Bolero closed the evening, and served as a further sampler of the orchestra’s mettle. Percussionist George Blanchet provided the rock-steady drum rhythm in Ravel’s 13-minute crescendo and Jean Bishop led off the solos with a rich, languorous, slightly ironic flute solo that seemed to encapsulate in a few bars what Bolero is all about. The ensuing wind solos were more variable with a couple mishaps, but Grams guided the music to its inexorable climax and crashing punch-line.

The Elgin Symphony Orchestra returns to the Harris Theater for “Abbey Road: The Beatles” on January 24, 2020 and music of Verdi, Strauss, Wagner and Elgar on February 7. harristheaterchicago.org

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