Lakeview Orchestra revives an American gem with Hanson symphony

Mon Feb 20, 2023 at 2:48 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Anthony Krempa conducted the Lakeview Orchestra in Howard Hanson’s Symphony No, 2 “Romantic” Sunday at the Athenaeum Center. Photo: Michelle Pranger

One of the advantages of having other orchestras in Chicagoland beyond the big house on Michigan Avenue is that one has the opportunity to hear some neglected first-class music that has been terra incognita downtown for decades.

Such was the case Sunday afternoon when the Lakeview Orchestra presented Howard Hanson’s Symphony No. 2 to a large and appreciative audience at the Athenaeum Center.

Founded a decade ago by artistic director Gregory Hughes, the city’s “North Side Orchestra,” consistently punches above its weight with committed playing, intelligent musical direction and, often, superb performances that belie its nonprofessional status.

Howard Hanson—along with David Diamond, Walter Piston, William Schuman, Peter Mennin, Paul Creston and others—was among the wave of American composers who created a remarkable wealth of individual yet identifiably American symphonies in the mid-20th-century. 

Born in Wahoo, Nebraska, Hanson (1896-1981) was the first director of the Eastman School—a post he held for four decades. The Swedish-American academic was both a dedicated teacher and a tireless advocate for American composers of all styles—not just tonal composers like himself but also young modernists such as Elliott Carter and Roger Sessions. Hanson also was a fine conductor and recorded many of his own works and those of others extensively with the Eastman-Rochester Orchestra, performances that hold up very well today.

Howard Hanson

Hanson wrote seven symphonies, an acclaimed opera Merry Mount, and many shorter works. But it was his Second Symphony, subtitled “Romantic,” that gained him the most fame in his lifetime; 75 years ago the three-movement work was a concert mainstay in the U.S. 

Written in 1930, Hanson’s Second Symphony is wholly characteristic—rugged, darkly heroic and with a soaring lyricism that is never soft or sentimental. It’s hard to fathom how such attractive music has fallen into near-total neglect. (The CSO hasn’t performed the symphony in 36 years.) All credit to the Lakeview Orchestra for reviving this homegrown masterpiece.

Anthony Krempa, the orchestra’s principal second violin, was on the podium for Sunday’s concert. Conducting with clear gestures, Krempa showed impressive podium skill and knowledge of how Hanson’s music should go, leading a well-paced and idiomatic performance. 

There were fleeting moments of ensemble disarray and wind section entrances were persistently wayward. But much of the playing was capable and often more than that. Krempa ensured the lyrical main theme was given great ardor and the latter part of the opening movement went with bristling vigor and dramatic cut.

The central Andante progressed with ease and eloquence under Krempa’s direction. Horn sections are invariably the Achilles heel of amateur orchestras but not here. Principal Lindsay Brown delivered stellar solo playing in his challenging solos and his four section colleagues brought comparable distinction to Hanson’s crucial horn writing.

The spirited finale went with ample energy and Krempa and the excellent Lakeview violins ensured that the climactic return of the indelible motto theme provided a resplendent payoff.

Overall, the Lakeview Orchestra provided wonderful advocacy for this neglected gem. Let’s hope that the orchestra continues to explore more neglected American symphonies in future programs.

The Anglo-American program opened with considerably more familiar fare, Gershwin’s An American in Paris. Krempa led an alert and idiomatic if rather cautious account of the score. If not the last word in swagger—trumpet solos really needed to cut loose more—Krempa led a lively enough performance.

Maurice Neuman performed the first two movements of Elgar’s Cello Concerto on Sunday. Photo: Michelle Pranger

Maurice Neuman was the afternoon’s solo protagonist in the first two movements of Elgar’s Cello Concerto. Winner of the Lakeview Orchestra’s Young Artist Competition, the 17-year-old junior at the University of Chicago Lab Schools displayed a singing tone and admirable technique, albeit a somewhat understated playing style. No doubt playing the complete work would have afforded the opportunity to explore Elgar’s elegiac concerto in greater depth. But Neuman showed himself a promising young musician, and Krempa and colleagues provided their young colleague with solid support.

Eli Chen conducts the Lakeview Orchestra in Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 and Brahms’ Symphony No. 1, 2 p.m. April 16 at the Athenaeum Center.

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