Grams returns, wraps Elgin Symphony season in style

Sun May 22, 2022 at 1:30 pm

By Tim Sawyier

Timpanist Robert Everson performed Michael Daugherty’s Raise the Roof with the Elgin Symphony Orchestra Saturday night.

The Elgin Symphony Orchestra concluded its 2021-2022 season Saturday night at the Hemmens Cultural Center, back under the baton of Andrew Grams. Grams was the Elgin music director from 2013 through the end of last season, and over his eight years there significantly helped shape the orchestra into the formidable regional ensemble it is today. Saturday night’s performance was a testament to that tenure.

The program began with Michael Daugherty’s Raise the Roof for Timpani and Orchestra. A timpani concerto is of course something of an oddity, but Daugherty’s inventive score is more than a mere curio. A modal, chant-like theme runs throughout the 15-minute work, contrasted with a lyrical melody that receives treatment in a variety of musical styles, which together make a compelling and unexpected case for the timpani’s potential as a melodic instrument.

Saturday’s soloist was longtime ESO timpanist Robert Everson, a fixture of the Chicago freelance scene for decades. Everson brought quiet confidence and understated virtuosity to his solo role. Lending a hypnotic feel to the Gregorian theme and ample flair when textures grew livelier, the soloist was equally at home in the music’s meditative sections and its Latin jazz episodes (which found him playing his kettledrums like bongos).

What the timpani lacks in agility is made up for with a particularly involved and demanding accompaniment, which Grams led incisively. The orchestra responded in kind, seemingly eager to do right by their valued colleague.

The remainder of the program was devoted to Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. Once an inescapable feature of orchestral programs, Rimsky-Korsakov’s music seems to have fallen out of favor in recent decades. This is not entirely a tragedy as the Russian’s evocative scores certainly can suffer from overfamiliarity, and may in fact benefit from some breathing time between hearings.

Former music director Andrew Grams conducted the Elgin Symphony Orchestra’s final program of the season.

All in all, this was a very fine outing for the ESO. Concertmaster Isabella Lippi was a standout, spinning the enchanting violin narrations with color and poise. Grams drew a brooding sostenuto from the orchestra in the opening of “The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship,” and elicited fiery articulation in the movement’s storm-tossed passages. “The Kalendar Prince” opened with alluring solos from principal bassoon Vincent Disantis and sitting principal oboe Alex Liedtke, and Grams’ leadership here, as throughout, was attentive to the larger musical picture.

“The Young Prince and Princess” felt appropriately amorous, adorned with coquettish wind contributions and genuine cinematic sweep in its closing moments. 

The closing movement—with its depictions of a Baghdad festival, the sea, and a shipwreck—felt more touch-and-go at times. The tempo for this should not go faster than the brass players can double-tongue, and Grams’ headlong clip was beyond the facility of some players. Nonetheless, Grams’ unflappable style and clear vision of the score made such lapses pass inconspicuously, and the closing bars genuinely gleamed, even in the Hemmens’ dry acoustic.

The orchestra played the Polonaise from Eugene Onegin as an encore, after Grams insisted to the audience that the orchestra “cannot end the season on a soft note.” Of course you can. Tchaikovsky’s jaunty bombast following the serene, ethereal close of Scheherazade felt something like mayonnaise for dessert—welcome in a given place and context, but not the taste you want to leave after an otherwise full and satisfying meal.

During intermission, Grams awarded the orchestra’s Arts Educator of the Year Award to Ruth Kavanaugh, who has taught music in Elgin-area schools for over 30 years. Grams said graciously that neither he nor anyone in the orchestra would be where they are if not for dedicated individuals like Kavanaugh, which is nothing less than the truth.

The Elgin Symphony Orchestra opens its 2022-23 season October 8 and 9 at the Hemmens Cultural Center. Conductor Andreas Lopera leads Dvorak’s Carnival Overture, Elgar’s Enigma Variations, and Wynton Marsalis’ Violin Concerto with soloist Kelly Hall-Tompkins.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Grams returns, wraps Elgin Symphony season in style”

  1. Posted May 22, 2022 at 2:56 pm by Andrew

    Another thoughtful review by Tim Sawyier. The Chicago music scene is lucky to have you in the audience, Tim!

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