Lakeview Orchestra serves up dramatic Tchaikovsky, Coleridge-Taylor rarity

Mon Apr 11, 2022 at 2:25 pm

By Landon Hegedus

Gregory Hughes conducted the Lakeview Orchestra Sunday at the Athenaeum Theatre. Photo: Marisa Klug-Morataya

Now in the latter half of this season’s post-lockdown thaw, the full scope of Chicago’s vibrant music scene is showing its colors, including a healthy array of nonprofessional ensembles. 

The Lakeview Orchestra, in the latest of strong performances this season, returned on Sunday afternoon with another offering at the Athenaeum Theatre conducted by artistic director Gregory Hughes.

The program followed the ensemble’s standard format of pairing repertoire warhorses with lesser-known gems, opening on this occasion with Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Violin Concerto. One of the most renowned black composers of the 19th century, Coleridge-Taylor is no longer a footnote in the Western classical music history, but experiencing a renewed wave of popularity in recent seasons among amateur and professional ensembles alike.

The Lakeview Orchestra gave a committed account of Coleridge-Taylor’s work, with concertmaster Janis Sakai making her solo debut in the featured role. The concerto is a definitive statement of the English composer’s style, replete with broad melodies and sophisticated harmonic odysseys propelled by sturdy rhythm.

Janis Sakai performed Coleridge-Taylor’s Violin Concerto with the Lakeview Orchestra. Photo: Marisa Klug-Morataya.

The work opens with one such memorable theme, a pentatonic motif declared by the strings and oboe before being taken up in capricious embellishment by the solo violin. Sakai’s playing seemed tentative in the rippling arabesques of the opening statement. However, any initial shakiness was soon dispelled and Sakai proceeded with much greater verve—the occasional intonation slip aside—culminating in a convincing delivery of the first movement’s knotted cadenza.

In the ensuing central nocturne, Hughes summoned a silvery aura from the orchestra’s strings, tastefully complementing Sakai’s gossamer tone. Here, the soloist plumbed the emotional heart of Coleridge-Taylor’s music and brought sweetness and an elegant touch to its soaring melodies. 

For all the loveliness of the second movement, the finale proceeded with more limp than lilt. Despite the clarity of his musical ideas, Hughes struggled to keep a firm grip on tempi, and the winds fitfully seemed to blaze ahead while the strings brought up the rear. Despite this, Sakai maintained her poise in the spotlight and displayed much greater facility in the quicksilver runs in the Allegro molto than she had in the first movement.

The program’s latter half was dedicated to Tchaikovsky’s ever-popular Fourth Symphony, which proved a fine match for this ensemble. The melancholic Andante sostenuto showcased the Lakeview Orchestra’s excellent woodwinds — both as a choir and for its principal players, namely Richard Zili, who was in fine form throughout the work’s many clarinet solos. 

Principal oboe Melanie Pozdol was similarly on point in the searching solo that opens the second movement, which proved a highlight of the concert. The transparent string sonority that characterized the Coleridge-Taylor was supplanted by romantic lushness in the Tchaikovsky, which served well to balance the often-overeager brass section.

The symphony’s third movement, a romp for pizzicato strings punctuated by peals of brass and woodwinds, contains some of Tchaikovsky’s most charming music, on par with any number of the composer’s recognizable ballet themes. Hughes was an attentive guide here, shaping the scherzo’s effervescent colors while holding the sprightly rhythm taut.

Contrasting with the subtler interpretation of the work’s earlier movements, Hughes leaned heavily into the dramatics of the celebratory fourth movement, to mixed effect. The brisk tempo, while perhaps a bit ambitious, nevertheless drew a spirited performance from the Lakeview’s plucky string section. 

Where the strings benefited from this kind of encouragement, the brass needed no additional help, and the final statement of the symphony’s trademark “Fate” theme steamrolled the rest of the ensemble. Still, Hughes maintained a steady hand through the work’s full-throated finale, which brought the audience to its feet in hearty and well-deserved applause.

The Lakeview Orchestra’s season concludes June 12 with a concert featuring Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique and the Chicago premiere of George S. Clinton’s violin concerto The Rose of Sonora.

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