Lakeview Orchestra makes the shock of Beethoven fresh again in season opener

Mon Oct 25, 2021 at 10:01 am

By Katherine Buzard

Matthew Bronstein performed Richard Strauss’s Horn Concerto No. 1 with Gregory Hughes conducting the Lakeview Orchestra Sunday at the Athenaeum Theatre. Photo: Michelle Pranger

The Lakeview Orchestra provided a perfect antidote to Sunday’s dreadful weather with its season-opening concert featuring works by Coleridge-Taylor, Strauss, and Beethoven. 

Established in 2013, Lakeview Orchestra is Chicago’s premiere nonprofessional orchestra. Their concert, held at the Athenaeum Theatre, demonstrated why they earned three awards from the Illinois Council of Orchestras in 2016, including the coveted Community Orchestra of the Year Award.

The program began with Symphonic Variations on an African Air (1906) by early-20th-century English composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. Coleridge-Taylor, who has fortunately started to gain the recognition he deserves in recent years, was an early champion of bringing elements of African-American folk music into classical works. Even though he never knew his African father and was raised by a white mother in Croydon, England, he felt a deep affinity for the music that African-Americans introduced him to on his travels to the United States. 

Symphonic Variations on an African Air is based on one such melody he encountered, “I’m troubled in mind.” The melody evolves over the course of the twenty-minute piece in a way that could hardly be considered repetitive, as themes and variations can often be. Instead, the composer’s melodic gifts were on full display, with one beautiful line following another. The orchestra, under the assured baton of artistic director Gregory Hughes, played with lyricism and a wide palette of colors. Of particular note were the multiple clarinet solos skillfully rendered by Richard Zili.

Rounding out the first half of the program was Richard Strauss’ Horn Concerto No. 1 (1883) with guest artist Matthew Bronstein. Strauss originally dedicated the concerto to his father, Franz Strauss, a highly regarded horn player at the time. However, Franz Strauss never performed the work because—according to musical history lore—it was too difficult for him. It is more likely that he wished for his son to forge a musical identity outside of his family name and instead asked for the dedication to be changed.

Bronstein played with a creamy and largely well-controlled tone. He was a sensitive colleague too during the moments when he played in duet with the various woodwind soloists during the second movement. Though the tuning between them could have been slightly better, the soloist let them come to the foreground of the texture nicely. Bronstein capped off the piece with a flourish, negotiating the virtuosic fast notes in the coda with ease. 

Photo: Michelle Pranger

The orchestra really hit its stride in the second half of the program with Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. Conducting from memory, Hughes was clearly in his element. His conducting was precise but expressive, with no extraneous gestures. The orchestra was also at its tightest here, and it was obvious that Hughes had done a lot of detail work in rehearsal.

The orchestra’s playing in the second movement was especially accomplished. Hughes eked a goose-bump-inducing pianissimo out of the lower strings at the beginning (their best ensemble of the whole program), and the violins, led by concertmaster Janis Sakai, lent their moments of counterpoint a delicate, crystalline tone. The entire movement was well paced, both in terms of tempo and dynamics.

The third and fourth movements were exciting, and Hughes’s enthusiasm was infectious, even if the tempo seemed on the verge of getting away from the players at times in the finale. Overall, this interpretation did highlight the “crazy” aspects of the symphony that had shocked audiences of Beethoven’s time—for once making their astonishment conceivable in music that has long since grown familiar to modern ears.

Lakeview Orchestra presents “Harry Potter and the Big Gray Wolf: Music of Films and Fairy Tales, Magic and Mayhem” on December 5.

Posted in Performances

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