Conductor Amsel makes impressive stand with Elgin Symphony

Sun Apr 02, 2023 at 10:45 am

By Tim Sawyier

Alex Amsel conducted the Elgin Symphony Orchestra Saturday night.

The Elgin Symphony Orchestra’s search for a new music director is in its home stretch. Eight finalists for the position were offered one subscription concert with the orchestra this season, and the seventh—Alex Amsel—was on the podium this weekend. The final applicant (Chad Goodman) will have his turn with the orchestra early next month, before a final announcement is made on May 23.

Amsel made a strong case for himself Saturday night at the Hemmens Cultural Center, leading a vibrant and textured account of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4. He heeded the operative sostenuto marking of the first movement introduction, and if the early going of the Moderato con anima felt overly tentative, the overall feel grew increasingly assured as the movement unfolded, culminating in a blistering coda.

The Andantino in modo di canzona had a wistful flow, with Amsel maintaining superb balance so its many intricacies came through, particularly the refined contributions from the principal winds. He had similar command in the coy Scherzo, where he successfully kept the dynamic of the extended pizzicato sections at a mirthful hush. The spirited Finale went with all the fire and élan one expects, punctuating a dynamic performance.

Most importantly, the Elgin players seemed eager to perform well for Amsel and were responsive to his leadership. Amsel recently spent three seasons as assistant conductor to the Fort Worth Symphony, where he was actively involved in building that ensemble’s community image through various forms of outreach and engagement, skills that will serve Elgin’s next leader well.

The evening’s soloist was violinist Blake Pouliot, a rising star beginning to make the rounds with increasingly prominent orchestras following his Philadelphia Orchestra debut last season. While the 29-year-old’s sartorial choices—particularly the untucked white shirt with superfluous black buckles—and casual demeanor made a mixed initial impression, there was nothing to quibble about with his exceptional account of Saint-Saëns’ Violin Concerto No. 3.

From the passionate opening declamation, the Canadian violinist was fully in sync with Saint-Saëns’ lyricism and Romantic flair. He surmounted the score’s acrobatic demands with ease, and his youthful showmanship never subsumed the larger musical narrative.

Pouliot was commanding throughout the opening Allegro non troppo and sensitive to the melodic contours of the central Andantino quasi allegretto, singing unabashedly on his 1729 Guarneri. He gave the final movement’s opening recitative a searing treatment, and remained assertively poised all the way to the double bar. Amsel led a largely responsive accompaniment to support his young soloist, though some orchestral tuttis lumbered behind Pouliot’s abundant energy.

The evening began with Fate Now Conquers, a short curtain-raiser composed in 2020 by the American Carlos Simon (b. 1986). The work’s title is a phrase from The Iliad that Beethoven included in his diaries in 1815, and loosely borrows the harmonic frame of his Seventh Symphony, though not in any form that is readily recognizable.

Fate Now Conquers begins with a driven texture throughout the orchestra, before giving way to sustained low brass lines. The dramatic feel thins out about halfway through, allowing for a rhapsodic cello solo, expertly delivered by principal Matthew Agnew on Saturday, before ending in the more aggressive mode with which it began.

The composer states that Fate Now Conquers speaks to adversity, perseverance, and Fate’s inevitable victory, but its five-minute duration struggled to engage these lofty themes in a convincing way. The short work was undeniably thoughtfully crafted though, and left one curious to hear more from Simon in the future.

The program will be repeated 2:30 p.m. Sunday at the Hemmens Cultural Center.

Posted in Performances

2 Responses to “Conductor Amsel makes impressive stand with Elgin Symphony”

  1. Posted Apr 02, 2023 at 10:56 am by ARD

    I find it hard to believe that the selection hasn’t already been made given that all of next season’s repertoire has already been announced.

  2. Posted Apr 03, 2023 at 2:01 pm by W. L. Weller

    The fact that the soloist’s attire is mentioned here confirms that he was dressed inappropriately. I believe conductors and soloists should dress as the orchestra does or better. This trend of conductors wearing what looks like pajamas or waiter’s outfits along with soloists in all sorts of eccentric garb distracts from the music and is often in bad taste. It is also disrespectful to the orchestra and public as well.

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