Lakeview Orchestra returns to the sea in committed style

Mon Feb 14, 2022 at 9:53 am

By Tim Sawyier

Gregory Hughes conducted the Lakeview Orchestra in music of Smyth, Mendelssohn and Debussy Sunday at the Athenaeum Theatre. Photo: Michelle Pranger

Shortly before the pandemic forced orchestras the world over to hit the pause button on performances in March 2020, the Lakeview Orchestra had been hard at work on Debussy’s La Mer. At the Athenaeum Theatre on Sunday afternoon, almost exactly two years since that initial performance was nixed, the dynamic community orchestra gave a committed account of Debussy’s iconic score to signal the resumption of business almost as usual.

Since its founding in 2013, the Lakeview Orchestra has grown dramatically under the aegis of artistic director Gregory Hughes, who does double duty as the ensemble’s general manager. La Mer is a demanding outing for even seasoned professional groups, and such an ambitious undertaking speaks to the trust and confidence that have developed between Hughes and his volunteer colleagues.

Hughes drew an atmospheric bed of sound from low strings and harps in the opening of “De l’aube à midi sur la mer,” and in several places wisely backed off tempi to keep Debussy’s knotty writing navigable by his players. While some exposed string sections clearly betrayed the group’s non-professional status, the movement’s extended sunrise had all the sweep and grandeur one could hope for, and the closing statements genuinely gleamed.

Hughes kept a firm hand amidst the intricacies of “Jeux de vagues,” where the music’s genuinely playful quality came through, and principal oboe Melanie Pozdol was a standout in some notoriously difficult passages for her instrument. Hughes imbued the final “Dialogue du vent et de la mer” with the requisite tempestuousness, from the growling cello statements at the opening to its ecstatic close. The vast majority of Lakeview Orchestra members make their livings in non-musical professions, and it was moving to see such a group offer a devoted performance for the sheer joy of doing so.

The afternoon’s soloist was 14-year-old violinist Henry Auxenfans, who performed Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto as the winner of the Orchestra’s 2022 Concerto Competition. Auxenfans is a freshman at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, and has been a member of various Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra ensembles since second grade. His performance Sunday was as accomplished as one is likely to hear from someone of his age and experience.

Henry Auxenfans performed Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto with the Lakeview Orchestra on Sunday. Photo: Michelle Pranger

He brought contrast and sensitivity to the Allegro molto appassionato, and was at his lyrical finest in the serenely singing Andante. There were some technical struggles and anxious moments in the finale, but Auxenfans’ excitement and talent shined through the nerves, and Hughes kept the performance on the rails with a steady hand. It will be exciting to see how Auxenfans develops as a soloist, should music be the one of his many talents he opts to pursue professionally.

The performance opened with the Serenade in D by the British composer Ethel Smyth (1858-1944). Smyth’s Serenade was premiered in 1893, and was her first substantial work for orchestra. While the score is in an appealing, outdoorsy, neo-Brahmsian vein, its 35-minute length makes it easy to believe this was a first try. 

All four movements are all at more or less fast tempi, and its ideas are developed in a seemingly arbitrary fashion that could have benefited from some judicious editing. It also seemed like a questionable decision to include such a large, demanding, and certainly unfamiliar work on the same program as the Debussy. Nonetheless, Hughes clearly had a vision of the score, and his rapport with the Lakeview players was evident throughout.

The Lakeview Orchestra next performance is April 10, featuring Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Violin Concerto with soloist Janis Sakai.

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