Lakeview Orchestra unearths a neglected gem by Louise Farrenc

Thu Dec 05, 2019 at 8:24 am

By Wynne Delacoma

Louise Farrenc’s Symphony No 3 was performed by the Lakeview Orchestra Tuesday night at the Athenaeum Theatre.

One of the luxuries of Chicago’s classical music scene is, to borrow a phrase from the world of sports, the depth of its bench. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Lyric Opera of Chicago are far from being the only worthwhile orchestral or operatic games in town. The odds of hearing something new and intriguing are high with such a wide playing field.

The Lakeview Orchestra continued its seventh season Tuesday at the Athenaeum Theatre with a program that proved the point. Gregory Hughes, founder and artistic director, has a knack for programming seasons that mix standard repertoire with unfamiliar pieces. Tuesday’s concert, led by Josh Mather, the orchestra’s founding assistant conductor, opened with two surefire favorites: Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man and Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto with soloist Joshua Brown. 

The evening’s welcome discovery was the Symphony No. 3 by 19th century French composer Louise Farrenc.

Born into an artistic family in 1804, Farrenc was famous in her time as a pianist and composer. She was a revered piano professor at the Paris Conservatory, though scandalously underpaid compared with her male colleagues (surprise!). Her fame dwindled after her death in 1875, and it’s a fair guess that few listeners at the Athenaeum Tuesday night had ever heard a note of her music.

Our loss. Under Mather’s thoughtful direction, Farrenc’s Third Symphony, composed in 1847, emerged as a meaty, full-bodied piece, a deft combination of crisp, Classical Era structure and dramatic, often lyrical Romantic expressiveness. Approximately 30 minutes long, set in the traditional four movements, Farrenc’s; work was full of energy and inventive touches. 

In the opening bars, Lakeview’s eloquent winds set out a quiet, gracious phrase that other sections of the orchestra picked up. But an air of suspense haunted the singing line, and when the full orchestra whirled off in lithe, high spirits, it was both a surprise and fluently inevitable. Mather emphasized that sense of seamless flow throughout the symphony, and Farrenc’s contrasts between dark, jagged phrases and classical lightness were deftly interwoven. The orchestral writing was full of color, especially for the woodwinds that ranged from scampering playmates to brooding sages. The violins had a crisp sheen, and cellos often provided a quietly supportive voice.

Joshua Brown performed Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto Tuesday night. Photo:  László Mudra 

Soloist Joshua Brown was a revelation in Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto. Now attending the New England Conservatory, he studied for five years with Almita and Ronald Vamos at the Music Institute of Chicago. 

Brown drew a sweet tone from his Guarneri violin, and even in the concerto’s most florid passages his phrasing was clear yet warm. He obviously has technique to spare, but his performance never slipped into showy, rough-edged fireworks. With the orchestra’s attentive accompaniment, the concerto sounded remarkably intimate. Brown saved the fireworks for his encore, Schubert’s searing song, Erlkonig, arranged for solo violin by 19th century violin virtuoso H.W. Ernst. Brown’s fierce torrent of high-speed, shuddering phrases evoked Schubert’s tale of a life-and-death race through a fairy-tale forest haunted by the evil Elf King.

The Lakeview Orchestra is a community ensemble, made up of some professionals and many nonprofessionals who play for fun. Even so, the brass section did not have a good night. They sounded tentative with some wobbly attacks in both the Mendelssohn and Farrenc pieces, and most notably in Copland’s Fanfare. The orchestra’s percussion was the starring voice in the Fanfare. The orchestra plays with the Athenaeum’s rear stage wall completely exposed. Copland’s thunderous drum rolls bounced off the brick wall into the auditorium like explosive cannon fire.

Even with the uneven quality of some of the playing, the Lakeview Orchestra deserves kudos for introducing us to music by Louise Farrenc, a composer well worth our attention.

The Lakeview Orchestra season continues 7:30 p.m. February 11, 2020 with a program including Villa-Lobos’s Sinfonietta and Carl Nielsen’s Symphony No. 4 “Inextinguishable.”

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